Profanities in Literature


Now comes an issue that I’ve been pondering about – the use of swear words in literature.

I’ve actually started thinking about this from the amount of bad language that you hear on the streets from ordinary people every day. Which, I hate. The occasional mild swear word is passable in general public use, but when I tend to hear these words, it tends to be the really bad ones. Over and over again. The F-word seems fast to be becoming an adjective all in its own right, with people using it in sentences such as ‘Then I went to the F-ing shops.”

I have no idea what the need for the extra word is, especially when describing a shop! But that’s real life – should it be the same or any different in literature?

I think that the obvious statement is to use profanities  appropriately. If your novel is set during the regency period or in modern well to do environments or in a traditional family setting the likelihood is that you’re not going to use bad language that often, if at all.

However, set in a run-down council estate in the centre of a deprived town, rife with petty crime, abandoned homes, unemployment, gang culture and people living in poverty, using the words ‘Golly Gosh’ is going to look frightfully out-of-place. (With this setting, I am completely generalizing and realise that not everyone living in such environments are direct products of that environment.)

But even in literary settings such as these, too much of it will put people off. Give the characters other words to use.

The use of bad language can sometimes add weight and drama to a situation, especially if used sparingly and appropriately. Too often and it may just well lose the emphasis that you were looking for when putting it in the text or dialogue in the first place.

So as I have said, there is no real hard and fast rule, you have to take your individual story and characters and decide whether putting bad language into your character’s mouths sounds right. If it does and adds weight and emphasis to the story or your characters background or situation then use it. If not, it’s best to leave it out.

With the use of profanities I think probably the best rule of thumb to follow is two simple words: appropriately and sparingly.

2 comments on “Profanities in Literature

  1. I tend not to use profanities in my writing just because I don’t really use them when speaking. I blame my mother — if I was ever foolish enough to utter a curse word in her presence, she’d inform me that cursing is just a non-creative way of expressing yourself. As in, people only curse because they’re too unimaginative to think up a proper way to verbalize what they’re feeling. I personally think that a well-placed F-bomb now and then is a quite succinct way to express oneself 🙂 Also, the genre I write in (Young Adult), isn’t really a great place to start tossing the F word around. I think that if I were to write in a different genre — maybe something like New Adult? — I would break out a few curse words. But until then, I’m perfectly happy living profanity-free 🙂

  2. I think profanities can be one of the most effective and difficult tools to use in literature. In a heartbeat, you can completely ruin a piece of writing with an ill-placed or poor taste profanity. Yet, the amount of impact from a single word is astonishing, especially when it’s one that most people use on a daily basis.

    I have a serious sailor’s mouth. It’s something I’m neither proud nor ashamed of. It’s a lot to do with where I grow up – I dare you to find a north Dublin native who can go five sentences without a swear. I still manage to avoid using it in my writing unless I actually intend to for effect. In saying that, I know people who rarely curse and then make their literature full profanities. It’s a tricky thing to get right!

    The rule of thumb for my writing is this: A novel is allowed three profanities. They must be single words.

    I don’t strictly abide to this, it just seems to happen!

    Really solid post that pinpoints the uses/problems of it, it’s a subject many writers don’t actually think about!

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