Menu

Photo by Flickr user edwick

It’s a simple fact of life that people swear. If you’re writing fiction about real people, or at least real people of certain fairly common temperaments under some circumstances, you ought to be prepared to write the occasional swear word. Of course, we’re not all writing fiction, and there’ll be many of us writing fiction who stick to “cleaner” topics and characters. Still, I thought swearing might be an interesting topic to bring up.

There are plenty among us who’ll see swearing as a degradation of the language, and there’s a very frequently-used argument that if you must resort to using swear words, your vocabulary must not be very good to begin with. I don’t think it’s a sound argument, but then, I do love to swear, so maybe I’m biased. Comedian and author Stephen Fry has taken up the topic as well and agrees with me, for what it’s worth, noting that many of our writers with the most prodigious vocabularies are also fond of swearing. You can watch a short video here if you’re interested.

So, what do you think? Is swearing an occasional evil necessary for the sake of realsim or is it perhaps even an art in its own right? Or is it something to be avoided at all costs? Let’s keep Erica’s tips about writing about controversy in mind and keep the comments clean no matter the opinions we’re expressing. There is, as they say, a good time and place for everything, and this blog is by and large a family show.

Show Comments

62 Comments

Comments are closed.

Close Comments

Comments

    1. Thanks for sharing. I read your post and pretty much agree with you. There are certain conventionally frowned-upon swear words that I’d much rather hear my kids say than words like “stupid” and “hate.” To me, meaning is more important than the syllables used to express the meaning, and words like “hate” and “stupid” are awful things to want to say to somebody. The conventional swear words are tame by comparison unless used to similar purpose.

      Like

  1. I agree with both you and with Stephen Fry (although I’m not a chronic swearer). It’s about context, and sometimes it’s a necessary evil. Other times it’s art. It’s certainly an element of humor and a creative way of making a point. Any talk of censoring profanity is so NOT what blogging is supposed to be about.

    Like

  2. Sometimes you just have to get people’s attention. What are swear words if not that. Why else would they be banned in places by people who don’t want to pay attention to you.

    Like

  3. Swearing is a part of normal life – pick up the wrong end of a hot soldering iron and you will definitely have an excuse to swear 😉

    When writing a story I believe you should adjust according to your intended audience – no point having swear words in a book aimed at children or an articvle aimed at a religious community – and then see if what you had in mind fits the scene you’re building. I’d expect a group of mechanics in a garage to be somewhat more rounded in their language than a group of college professors and any story should take this into account. Context and audience are everything here.

    Like

  4. swear is one word we use for tell our self’s ”i will do” is not good to use (relagion) sometime we don’t have other choice..(i use not with out reason) thank you

    Like

  5. There’s a time and a place for swearing. I watched Stephen Fry’s Planet World (which by the way, is really interesting) and loved the experiment with pain and swearing. However, there’s got to to a point to it. I’ve used swear words in my blog – in actual fact, I’ve written a whole blog post on it and kept the words in. It would have been silly to **** them out! However, generally, I’ve had to make a decision as to write the whole word or use the ****s.

    Like

  6. Let me preface this by saying that I am no prude or angel, and I agree; there are times when only certain words will do to describe the intensity of a situation, or the extreme nature of a person or event! In that sense, these words (“swear words”, curse words”), have specific meaning and purposes. In today’s culture I believe this has been somewhat lost. I think it almost irritates me more than offends me when watching a movie, television show, a comedian speak, or even listening to someone talk; for every other word to be “f…ing this, f…ing tht, she’s an f…ing bi..ch, I would make the argument that writer are perhaps becoming “lazy” or less creative in not being able to come up with other language, and perhaps more appropriate descriptions. When everything is “f….ing”, and everyone is a “f..ing b.ch” these words lose their impact. Perhaps a person is annoying, abrasive, arrogant (and that’s only the As!). To use “f…ing b…c to describe someone with any offensive characteristics, 1. does not illuminate the listener at all to what the speakers particular issues are, and 2. is likely an overstatement. F..ing b..ch should be reserved for those who have truly earned the title! This goes for all swearing. It loses its impact when made a part of regular, usual speech.

    Like

    1. For a moment, I read ‘reserved’ as ‘reversed’, and reversed the two words, f@%$ing b#@%!. Those two words as stated are stale. Reverse them, and they hold a similar meaning with a fresher perspective.

      Funny that.

      Like

      1. Hey, I thought this was a classier forum where people discussed ideas and presented opinions, not make poorly veiled insults toward writers they disagree with (and this goes for someone else!). I don’t see any discussion of the issue in your post. I hear the term f.. b… often enough that I could hardly say it is stale. And as far as the word reversal, a good f……. probably existed since people began to f…., so, not really a fresh perspective on a very old (does that translate to “stale”) idea?

        And, you look rather young, but let me point out something else. I think it was obvious to most the the point of paragraph was not the term f… b…,
        but that word was used as a commonly encountered example that most readers would be familiar with). Perhaps you don’t mean it, but from your comment, it appears you are missing the entire point of the discussion.

        Like

    2. I completely agree, Ellen. I do believe that swear words have lost their meaning because of how often and loosely they are used. I also agree that using them in writing, unless otherwise necessary, reads odd and as if the writer could not come up with a more creative dialogue.

      Great post Daryl!

      🙂

      Like

  7. Excuse my typos! One caveat. For writers portraying a character who does speak like that, the use of that language has an obvious purpose. But again, it supports my same view – it has a specific purpose and is being intentionally used to illustrate a character.

    Like

  8. I largely agree with ellenheyer. While I don’t think that swearing necessarily indicates a lack of vocabulary in and of itself, I do think that overabundance of swearing (for emphasis or otherwise) starts to degrade the emphatic effect. This isn’t that different from the overuse of other words: very, such, awesome, love, etc. Starts to sound a little stale.

    Like

  9. Swearing isn’t always necessary, but when you are writing that moment when your character has to do it, it will hit you right in the face. You have no choice, but to give in.

    Like

  10. There is a time and a place for everything. If it fits the character, then I think the use of a swear word is appropriate. Right now I am trying to write a short story about an experience I went through and realizing that I can’t capture the true heart of the story without using a swear word here and there because I swear.

    Like

  11. I don’t feel swearing is not needed at any time. I avoid listening to it if I can. Reading I can skip over it. I still prefer nice clean reading.

    Like

  12. I don’t make it a personal habit of swearing in real life, but writing fictional stories is another thing. There are times when you are writing a story and the setting in the story might call for swearing. I mean, let’s say you have your character surrounded by a gang of really mean and tough guys. Are those guys going to be saying things like shoot, heck, or dang it?

    Like

    1. Good point, but in writing one does (if one is any good) have an influence on readers. Thus, it is OK for the garbage to swear in one’s books or stories, but if all the good guys do as well or instead, it is spreading the message that this is a cool way to behave.

      Like

      1. That’s true. In my own writing I simply state in my prose that the surly character cursed or sweared. I figure there is no reason to get into specific swear words. I’ve never had to resort to using it in dialogue; I prefer snarky attitudes to swearing in dialogue exchanges.

        Like

  13. As a Chinese teacher, I know one of the first things students want to learn is ‘how to swear’.

    They also like to pick up some oriental swear words, and ask me to verify them!

    Like

  14. I have found that people, in general, usually outgrow the need to feel big by using words that make them feel more powerful. So, yes, if writing about a teen who has yet to figure out who he is, or an adult who is a slow learner because of past brokenness or whatever, using a few judiciously placed swear words, to give that impression, might be appropriate. For instance, when depicting Jeremy Duncan, a few @#$!$&#%) might better show his immaturity. It is a pity, though, if the characters always must be that immature solely because the author is.

    Like

  15. I personally like to swear, and I do not mind it in writing either, but if it becomes repeaditive it gets annoying… Then again, I guess that over use of any set of words gets boring

    Like

  16. Definitely an art! And yes, I am biased.

    Why do people love A Song Of Ice and Fire’s King Robert? Because despite being a king, he swears like there’s no tomorrow. It’s a funny irony, being a king Robert is, that GRRM has achieved.

    Like

  17. Repetitive and unnecessary swearing gets annoying. Rappers overuse it…even abuse it. Fiction writers, of course, need to incorporate natural language in their writing. That’s fine, as long as it fits the story and the character. But the teens that I work with in rehab think swearing is critical to their conversation. I tell them it just gets boring because I’ve heard those words so many times!

    Like

  18. Great topic! Swearing? Not sure it applies to all topics but what a starting point for discussion! “I swear by the light up above etc., etc.” On a religious note, I have been known to use every swear word in the book and my wife of 42 years objects- wonder why? Perhaps I am not the most religious commenter of your topic. Nonetheless, I’m here to swear to its place in the discussion. I have been exposed to war. Vietnam was not a place to wonder between taking or allowing life to continue or ending it now. Your workmate by day soon became your enemy in the night as his overnight wounds appeared when he tried to return to work! I swear! How can the guy hoping to earn wages the day following his overnight insurgency possibly hope to placate his employers? That was the war we fought from 1956 to 1975ish.
    Is that environment so different from today?

    A religious sect controls most of what we Americans know as the middle-east yet how well do we really know them / our enemy? Yes, the Muslim religion has more zealots then the “Black Panthers, ““Arian Brotherhood” or the “Mexican Mafia.” Would you like to argue that issue?

    I have faith born of those who tire of seeing their children die! I have faith emanating from those who choose a world without war. That / My faith will propel me to seek a world where disagreements end in equal resolution. Notice I did not say “peaceful resolution.” Equality without pain and suffering does not endure but is brought back to be fought by future generations. We must make a decision today what we want for our future. I swear my optimism for tomorrow’s generation- Do you?

    Like

  19. Years ago, or in a different generation, it was seen as disrespectful for men to swear in front of women. That certainly is the case nowadays. Most of us swear, but some people don’t realise how much they do!

    Like

  20. I think there’s a time and a place for both. I am fond of swearing myself, but the real danger is using it inappropriately, or using it as a malevolent tool against others.

    Some characters may cross these boundaries. However, as an author, I think it’s important to be clear that it isn’t something to do lightly, and to be wary of your audience. If it’s inappropriate to show it, don’t. But if you’d be robbing your audience by censoring yourself, you need to show it.

    Like

  21. It is my experience that those who swear the most are often the least able to reason through a logical argument. There is something about swearing that shuts down the reasoning center of our mind.

    Like

  22. That’s so funny. I wrote about this in my blog and my point is that “cursing kills creativity”. But then again some people would believe it could be an art form in itself like pretty much anything else could be. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  23. Wow! I’ve read all the links and the comments. I didn’t realise people still had such archaic attitudes. Being an uneducated piece of garbage/a mechanic or whatever stereotype you choose to use, I swear. In fact, when I came home from university, my parents criticised my language and blamed it on my equally uneducated grad friends.

    Yes it can be overused. It can also be used to great impact. The Fry vid was superb, but maybe that appeals to a Brit sense of humour, or maybe we swear differently.

    I do resent the idea that swearing is reserved for ‘lower classes’ ‘garbage’ tradespeople’ and other such detritus. Come off it. Of course college professors swear. Of course, people with degrees, (one or more) swear. But that is such a classist conception that only ‘rough’ people swear. And that judgemental misconception is far worse than swearing.

    There are some swear words I dislike, and that is because of their connotation as others have said above. I will not use the ones that denigrate women.

    Back to blogging – one of the reasons I have more than one blog is so that I can swear on the ‘rant’ blog. Ironically, I was so annoyed on my main blog that I used swearing in the headline. Whereupon some of my readers commented that was a sure way to get their attention.

    Bottom line

    1) Sticks and stones etc, there are far worse issues to worry about in life

    2) Consider the meaning of the words, if they are insulting to someone, don’t use them – calling someone stupid, lame, a moron, a spastic, an idiot, a bitch, is far worse than saying **** [insert four letter word of choice]

    Oh and different cultures think differently too.

    Here is my post about it – for sensitive souls there are no bad words used. Just explanations.

    http://roughseasinthemed.wordpress.com/2007/05/21/peas-and-mi-chichi-habla-espanol-2/

    Like

  24. Post Script. How many people who dislike swearing are NOT religious? Because that seems to be a big part of the issue. And calling it cursing too? That is too quaint. Seriously.

    Like

  25. Of course if it is a story , it totally depends on the character. and yes it does reflect some realism . I have never used on so far in my writings ..

    Like