Warning: This post contains strong language which may not be suitable for younger readers and which some people may find offensive.
Swear … use profane or indecent language esp. as an expletive or from anger
source : The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1991
Is it okay to swear in books?
It has been rattling around at the back of my mind for some time and raised its head recently when I was reading through my manuscript. Just how many times did I need to or, indeed, should use the F word?
When I was younger just saying ‘bloody’ was enough to get into trouble. However, ‘bloody’ and other words such as ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ have slipped into everyday usage. I am reliably informed by my teenagers these aren’t even considered as swearing.
This theory seems backed up when we regularly hear these words used in TV dramas, BBC, ITV, C4 or otherwise. They are so common that we probably don’t notice them – they certainly don’t have the same impact as they might once have done.
So what of the F word? Once this was considered particularly offensive and some might say, still is. I can only think of one word that would top it. However, the effectiveness of the F word seems to have been diluted too. For example, take a RomCom film like ‘Four Weddings & A Funeral’ – in the opening scene ‘fuck’ is said eleven times, along with a ‘fuckity-fuck’ and a ‘bugger’. Where it may have shocked at one point, here, it is intended to make for a comical scene. (Transcript http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/four-weddings-and-a-funeral-script.html)
Is it any worse writing it down or reading it? Does being in black and white make it more shocking? I personally don’t think so, as long as it’s in context and not just there for the sake of being there. I use swear words when I write, although I will admit to editing a good deal out of my final manuscript. I think originally I had about fourteen variations of the F word and whittled it down to six or seven. I tended to let my bad guy do most of the swearing, although I did let my good guy swear occasionally where I felt it added to the scene. In each instance, I felt it was justified as it was in character and appropriate to the situation.
What do you feel about swearing in books?
Are you comfortable reading and/or writing it? Or do you find it offensive?
Would it put you off reading a book?
53 thoughts on “To Swear or Not To Swear? [This post contains strong language]”
Ah the great fuck debate! As I write contemporary novels and it is a word used in modern day language (whether we like it or not) it goes into my books. However, I heard at a conference I attended that for some stores (I think it was Asda but don’t quote me on that) a whole reprint of a book with ‘F’ words had to be done before they stocked it and it was asterixed out. Having heard this and not wanting to limit the places that stock my book I asterixed out the ‘F’ words in Strings Attached. It is a self-published title, it is print on demand, it can’t be changed for a separate print run like the big boys can! However, then people would ask why I had done this and I always had to explain! I’m not scared of using the word in books where it fits but I know it can alienate some readers. You have to go with your character though. My bodyguard Nathan in my next book is full of fucks! LOL!
I do remember you tell me that before about Asda.
Nathan your bodyguard, can’t really see him saying ‘Oh bother where’s my blasted gun?’
Swearwords. I think they’re necessary, occasionally, to make a strong point. However, I definitely recall reading many a reviewer commenting on the prevalence of swearword in one particular author’s books (and not liking them; the swearwords, I mean), so that was a bit of an alarm bell for me. Yet I agree with Mandy and Sue–if our characters are to be real, they have to use real, authentic language (up to a point). I’m fairly certain the ‘F’ word features in my writing, once or twice. ‘Bugger’ and ‘bollocks’ make an appearance too. And then… I do have a scene in Sophie’s Turn where one of the characters completely loses their mind and swears, quite strongly and quite uncharacteristically. He uses the word ‘mother fucker’, which at one point I had asterisked out but have since put back in because it emphasises the depth of his emotion. Go figure! So I’d say, use, but use with caution. I do a search at the end of my manuscript to check for overuse of certain words or expressions, and you betcha that the swearwords feature in that search. If there’s too many, I tone them down. But that’s just me….
That’s exactly what I did, searched all varations of the F word and where possible either deleted it or replaced it with something else.
Thanks for dropping by, Nicky.
Wow. I just took a look at the script, and that movie sure uses the F word a lot.
Personally I feel uncomfortable using words like that. Sure, some words can be considered quite tame now (and those I may slip in briefly), but the F word for example would never make its way into my books. I also don’t like it when a book uses it too much. I can stomach it, but it will most likely irk me.
You have to go with whatever you’re comfortable with. I don’t like to read it a lot or have it in the text just for the shock factor.
Thanks for the comment, Zen.
In moments of high emotion, an expletive is often a way of reducing the stress. If the character is the sort that would swear, and the book is for adults, I see no problem in writing it in, however, I agree with the general feeling that it should be used in moderation.
There are times when it can be used with comic effect, too 🙂
I wonder why that is though? Why does a swear word make us feel better?
I like the comic effect idea – thinking back to a recent conversation, it’s making me laugh all over again 😉
Interesting post. I abhor the ‘c’ word, so would never use it in my work. The ‘f’ word is not something I would slip into a 1800’s romance/suspense. I have used ‘piss off’ and ‘bloody’, but that is as far as I would go. I was more worried about using ‘Cristsakes’ or somesuch, for offending folk. 🙂
Totally with you on the ‘C’ word and actually using ‘Jesus’, ‘Jesus Christ’ or such like has made me stop and think more than using the ‘F’ word.
I’ve been told off for swearing too much in my books (by my editor, so they don’t usually make the final cut), which is strange because I don’t even swear that much in my everyday life. But I do tend to write characters who swear quite frequently and, in modern speech, “bugger” just doesn’t cut it any more, especially for anyone under the age of thirty. But now I try to leave it out as much as I can and…no-one notices! So a manuscript that starts life full of bloody fucking buggering shitfaces, could subsequently be read by the Queen with nary a blush. I don’t think anyone has ever say “what this book could do with is more swearing”, have they?
Love your comment, especially the last bit – a very valid point.
Thanks for stopping by
As a reader I really don’t mind the occasional swear word but I know that some readers don’t like it. Fuck is okay for me to read and as you say Sue, it’s lost its shock factor today … however, I do hate swearing in social media but that’s another story…
Phew, that’s a relief since I know you’ve read my book 😉
Thanks for the comment, Shaz
I’m ok with swearing in books as long as it’s relevant to the plot or suits the character. Sometimes only a good old “Eff off” will do. If it’s overdone though, it definitely loses impact, like anything, I suppose. I would always use when writing, if warranted. As Laura says above, especially in highly emotional/angry scenes where a character might really want to ram home the point. Great post, Sue 🙂 x
Absolutely Jan, ditto to the above.
I live with an ancient mariner – the F word is used all day long so I am immune to it. In books, however, it jars if it is out of character. I use profanities that suit the character – “Great Thor’s Hairy Bollocks!” would be fine for a Viking but slightly out of place from the lips of a frustrated PA in a Chic-Lit. It can be funny – the fuckity-fuck quoted above made me smile – having a character who wouldn’t normally swear can also point up just how emotional they are feeling.
My romantic novels set in the British Military Police obviously contain swearing because (been there, done that) these guys do. And it can jump out of a sentence as a shock tactic. We’re talking about someone likeable, so another character calling him a “dispicable little c***” is a surprise.
Loved the post.
Glad you liked the post Cameron. Have to say the ‘fuckity-fuck’ made me laugh too and the character portrayed by Hugh Grant in the film, could definitely get away with that. I suppose that’s the whole point, some characters are meant to swear and some just are not.
What a f… f.. flipping interesting post! I agree that swear words are a necessary part of a contemporary novel, but I do think you have to dial their frequency down from what *really* comes out of people’s mouths. I know some publications and lines have their own rules – fair enough – and if you want to be published by that house/magazine, then you must respect their wishes. However, i think it’s taking things to extremes at times. I know one ‘clean’ US, publisher ( and how I hate that term – with the implication that every other publisher is ‘dirty’ – who edited out every single ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ and even heck from a wondeful Regency novel. I actually find that degree of bowdlerization offensive; it smacks of sticking one’s head in the sand and fingers in ears and calling ‘la, la la, la la, very loudly as the world races by. I’ve just used the c word in a novel, but ina very specific context. 🙂
Yes, sometimes you could be too realistic with the amount of swearing – am thinking of a particular Irishman that came over on a family visit once. The only word I could really understand was ‘fecking’.
PS I love Four Weddings – in the Making of guide, Curtis writes a hilarious piece on the American distributors orders to him to edit out his fucks etc – and the silliness that ensued, in particular the fact Americans would never stand for a vicar with a big erection. 🙂
Lol – ing 🙂
PS if anyone has any suggestions for swearing that’s above and more contemporary than bugger but not quite as rude as fuck, I’d be very grateful. 🙂 I’m buggering a lot at the moment.
This is so interesting – thank you, Sue! I don’t actually like to see books peppered with profanities, but mine has them for realism – sad indictment of society? Maybe we’re actually encouraging this reality?
It’s probably self-perpetuating, that’s how language evolves. I know my nan thought calling someone a ‘cuss’ or a ‘swine’ was pretty bad but nowadays, well, it just doesn’t have the same impact.
My bad guy absolutely had to say the F word (many times) or it wouldn’t sound realistic. But I don’t use it for other characters as a casual expletive.
That’s how I was thinking – my bad guy just had to swear the most. Like you, I don’t pop swearing in there casually.
Gosh, feel naughty now as my Good guys say naughty words too, as that’s the way they would speak – yes, highly educated guys who love their mums, are dedicated to saving the world and are kind to animals. Sigh
You naughty girl, hold your hand out while I give it a slap!
Had a *****ing problem with a ****** editor at Usborne. Family publisher, so no *****ing swear words allowed. Not even d**n or s**t. You try writing a whole series based on 15 year olds without any swearing.. Discovered she didn’t know any foreign languages though, so set some bits of the book abroad and got away with ‘merde’ and ‘faen’ and ‘dritt’. Tee hee.
Laughing very much! Thanks Carol 🙂
My hero swears occasionally, but only at times of stress or shock. I have just this minute gone through the ‘find’ facility and downgraded a couple of expletives, but one in particular has to stay – my hero would not be saying bother, blow or bust in response to the tragedy that has befallen him…
Bother, blow or bust would turn it into a comedy I fear.
My heroine used to swear too much, Bit like me, I guess, but then I toned her (not me) down a bit. I do think swearing is needed for effect, but too much can be off putting. I like use alternate swear words like fiddlesticks but then the moment has to be right. Swearing on the whole is on the rise if my bus journey research is correct.
Sometimes I say ‘Ffffffffffff fudge cake’ but I still get a lot of satisfaction out of at least threatening to say the f word. Sometime though I just say it anyway! Fffffff fickle.
First time I’ve blushed since leaving the forces…..
Yeah, right 🙂
It’s a slippery slope. I grew up with the BBC being the bastions of what was right and proper but now find they have dropped their guard and allowed vulgar words to enter the scripts they broadcast. I felt safe knowing that I could watch the BBC without being subjected to the language I would not dare to use at home.
The likes of Dick and Dom arrived and the demise of the BBC was confirmed for me.
An expletive may feel appropriate but I am often reminded that our language contains enough words that we can express ourselves with dignity.
A number of years ago, I was surprised when a co worker said profanity was commonplace in her house and she had to think carefully before she could speak a sentance aloud that was expletive free. (What she actually said was “Every other f*cking word in my house is f*ck.”).
We learn our language from those around us. If children grow up reading profanity as a part of every day vocabulary, then they will speak it as such and so the cycle continues and we don’t want that for the little buggers.
I suppose after a while as language evolves certain words stop being seen as offensive and each generation has their own idea of what’s swearing and what’s not. I think this is something that a writer has to be aware of.
Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Oh. And it was going so well…
As a reader I have no problem with swearing in books, in fact I believe it makes them more realistic because, as Sue said, they are so common in every-day life that we rarely notice them!
I am very comfortable reading a book with swearing in it and it certainly wouldn’t put me off reading a book but I do think it should be necessary or relevant to the character.
Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment – much appreciated.
Can’t resist sharing this wee anecdote in such a context. A few years back, I was doing a signing for my latest crime novel at a bookstore in Florida, sitting outside on a typically gorgeous Florida day. One elderly woman walked past, smiled, said good afternoon and walked on. She then walked back and forth several times and it seemed obvious to me that she wanted to say something but was maybe shy. Eventually, she plucked up the courage to speak and we had a wee chat. She said she was an avid reader and liked to have books signed by authors. She asked about my book and I told her it was about a respectable local doctor locking people up in his cellar and, at one point committing a murder. He was aware that he was doing immoral things but he also felt his motives were legitimate. She listened, asked questions, seemed unfazed by the idea that this might be quite a dark book and was clearly intending to buy a copy. But then she asked ‘Does it have any rude words in it?’ After a bit more discussion, I advised her not to buy it. It seems that locking up 5 men in darkness for weeks on end and killing another were all acceptable elements of fiction, but seeing the word ‘fuck’ on a page might bring on a case of the vapours. We parted very good friends.
Thanks for sharing that anecdote – it made me smile.
Ooooooo – IF my latest MS makes it past reader review, Jane’s comment indicates the word count may come down considerably LOL. I find my characters swear quite a lot too. Whether it’s because i find myself having to restrain myself when I am around the kids and it all comes gushing out when I write, I’m not sure… You mentioned how Four Weddings used it for humour. I definitely use it then too. Great post Sue.
It’s got to come out somewhere I suppose – better on the page than somewhere else 🙂
Thanks for stopping by Sarah
When I was much younger, I swore dreadfully (at 18, it’s exciting; then it becomes a habit-one doesn’t even hear it any more). While I still have periodic attacks of potty mouth (which I do try to control), I find that swearing in books, particularly the f-word, is seriously over-used. While I realize that it is human and normal to swear in some fashion, I prefer not to read excessive swearing. Frankly, I find it rather dull and it sometimes seems almost a cheat, replacing real description of a mood or emotions. I think it’s better to use swear words sparingly. Then, more impact is made with less-offensive words that f*** or c***.
That’s a good point you make about it becoming dull and it’s almost a cheat. When I was looking up French equivalents for swearing, they have far fewer swear words than us, which forced me to look for alternatives that weren’t offensive. It got the old brain working that’s for sure.
Thanks for the comment.
I live in France and swearing is a minefield for a Brit. Bugger is mild to us but one of the worst things you can say here. In contrast the C word is used all the time to mean just a stupid person. You can make it worse by saying “type of” which is like saying “double” in America.
I taught my husband to swear but his pronunciation gets in the way. He once attempted “type of worst possible C***” at someone who rammed his car but ended up calling him “a hole in a duck” …. mystified other driver and wife in fits of the giggles.
Playing catch up and feel a bit late to the sweary party discussion, but just wanted to say I really enjoyed your post, Sue, and the comments it’s provoked. I’ve no problem using swearwords in my stories if my characters and the context elicit it. In fact, I kind of feel to omit them would make certain scenes seem unrealistic!
I grew up in a family where swearwords were frowned upon and my brother still gets the hump when I come out with them! I don’t mind book that contain them but appreciate they are not for everyone. I have an ex who works with kids who uses the words ‘sugar’ instead of shit and ‘fudge’ instead of fuck, even when he was cross when he was driving!! Bless.
I’ve got a lady in her 80s I worked for years ago, who has requested a print copy of Gunshot Glitter and there is a little bit of me that wants to stick a warning sticker on the front of it, for the sex and swearing contained inside lol, but she was my age once and has kids and she doesn’t live in an ivory tower so I’m sure she can handle it.
However, I am deeply surprised that Asda has issue with it and that some publishers/editors request ‘f*ck me with a spoon’ as opposed to the full spelling. Wow. If I am honest, I regard that as censorship. Have learned something new today.
I know what you mean about older people reading your book with swear words in. I’ve warned my mum and have a black marker pen ready to blank out all the ‘F’ words of the copy for my Aunty.
p.s. I should also add that my lady in her 80s is also one of the funkiest lady’s I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, if I am remotely like her at her age I’ll be extremely proud, before anyone thinks I’m out to give her a heart-attack!