Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Like it or not, swearing, cursing, saying bad words, uttering profanities, being foul-mouthed, growling obscenities, cussing, effing and blinding, venturing imprecation, and even turning the air blue are facts of life. For many people, bad language is an everyday occurrence, while for others it’s a major taboo, but it’s certainly a feature of a realistic, familiar world.
That means that swearing, however unpalatable, is often something to consider when building the world of your story, or even when deciding on the voice or tone of your writing. There are answers for every taste and sensibility, but they’re answers that first require authors to ask questions.
In this article, I’ll be posing some of those questions, exploring your swearing options as an author in an attempt to showcase the variety of ways you can write (or not write) cursing in your story. We try to cater to every type of writer and disposition, so I’ll begin by talking about how not to swear, before moving on to a discussion of swearing which will contain some foul language. So, whether you’re here for the duration or planning to disembark at the first stop, let’s get started.
How to avoid swearing
Many authors – for various reasons – don’t want to include swearing in their work. It may be a matter of taste or tone, a way to create a particular setting or mood, or they may be after as wide a readership as possible.
For these authors, there are a lot of options, but one is much worse than the rest. That poor option is on-the-page censorship of swearing.
If you’re looking for an example, look no further than our title, which demonstrates the use of ‘grawlix’. Other options include s****ing-out words, or even using a black highlight.
So what’s wrong with these options? Well, nothing, but they do carry a particular sort of context. Censoring swear words on the page sends the message that you a) couldn’t use swear words and b) didn’t have the power to use different words. This device has a natural home in non-fiction – especially journalism – where the reader understands that the writer couldn’t reword a quote for taste, but this very message can harm fictional works.
Censoring swearing in fiction sends the message that you, the author, were somehow unable to remove the swearing. That’s obviously not true, which maneuvers the reader into a space where, consciously or not, they have to conclude that you’re telling them a lie. You chose to use a word, but then you chose to pretend you didn’t want to. This plays havoc with a reader’s suspension of disbelief, tugging at their sleeve to remind them that this was a written work, and that it’s all a lie put together by an author.
On top of that, it acts counter to the medium, using obfuscation to subvert a visual experience. It feels wrong, and unless you really are obscuring some cursing you couldn’t avoid, or acting with ironic intent, the reader is likely to be put off.
In literature for younger readers, this type of visual censorship can strike a chord, conveying the idea that the author wanted to swear, believed the reader could handle it, but was hobbled by outside restrictions. Terry Pratchett uses the device to great effect in the character of Mr. Tulip, whose preference for the curse ‘–ing’ appears to be censorship (and is generally treated as such), but is actually just the written representation of a particularly odd sound.
“Your friend Mr. Tulip would perhaps like part of your payment to be the harpsichord?” said the chair.
“It’s not a –ing harpsichord, it’s a –ing virginal,” growled Mr. Tulip. “One –ing string to a note instead of two! So called because it was an instrument for –ing young ladies!”
“My word, was it?” said one of the chairs. “I thought it was just a sort of early piano!”
– Terry Pratchett, The Truth
Numerous publications in different types of media have also used visible censorship to indicate the influence of an outside body – applying ‘black bars’ rather than removing content in order to signal to the reader that a censor has come between them and the original art. The videogame South Park: The Stick of Truth, for example, used a picture of a crying koala to overlay any scenes banned by famously strict Australian censors.
Outside of such deliberate usage, visible censorship is rarely advisable. Thankfully, there are other options.
The easiest way to avoid swearing in your story is not to do it. This may sound like something you’d do naturally, but without focused attention, it can come off feeling strange. Most people are used to hearing swearing in some context, so a completely sanitized world can seem out of the ordinary.
The way to counteract this is to establish some kind of swearing-esque behavior. What do people in your world do to signal absolute frustration? It’s something we know humans feel, it’s something we know your characters must feel, so if they don’t swear, what’s their outlet?
Many types of publications – especially early comics – use lesser terms as if they’re cursing. Words like ‘scumbucket’ or ‘dang’ may seem ludicrously tame, but in the context of a moment and sentence, it’s possible for the reader to glide past them and register them as cursing-like behavior without looking too closely.Hate swearing? Well, there are lots of ways to get around it.Click To Tweet
Remember that this is your world, and the reader is open to learning new rules. If you want to show realistic cursing behavior without swearing, you can easily introduce lesser terms as if they’re your world’s equivalent of swearing. This can actually be a really effective method for world building. I’ll talk shortly about inventing new curses, but even drawing on existing (but archaic or unfamiliar) swearing provides a combination of realism and novelty. Words come from a particular place, after all, and your reader will recognize a genuine curse word by its ‘feel’.
This practice is a longstanding technique of comedian Bill Bailey, who frequently uses archaic swearing as part of his verbally dexterous performances.
We used to swear all the time. It was a common argot. Then one night, out of devilment or boredom, I tried replacing all the swear words with olde English words, like ‘rascal’ or ‘mountebank’ or ‘flibbertigibbet’, and it got an equal if not bigger laugh. That was a lightbulb moment. I’m not a prude, and a well-chosen swear word can be a linguistic bomb going off, but we have this incredibly rich language, so why not use it?
– Bill Bailey, ‘Bill Bailey, qualmpeddler’ from Saga
If you want to show realistic swearing behavior, you can even do so without using dialogue, writing something like, ‘Olga waited while Cliff cursed up a blue streak, silently pondering what she might like as an evening meal.’ Here, a character has engaged in swearing, but the reader didn’t have to hear it directly.
If you’d rather characters not swear at all, that’s fine, but it might be advisable to show them venting frustration in another way. The police chief could strike his table in anger, or break off the conversation for the sole purpose of cooling down.
That’s not to say that your world or your story have to revolve around cursing. Of course, they don’t, and you might be writing a world, setting, set of characters, or plot where it just doesn’t come up. The fact remains, however, that it’s a normal and frequent extension of human behavior. We’ve developed to use a particular set of words to signal a range of emotions and beliefs, and so to strip your characters of that ability entirely is often to render them a little uncanny – like having characters who can never sit down. It may never come up, you might ‘get away’ with it, but if you don’t have some alternative, there’s always the possibility that there’ll be a knock-on effect you hadn’t expected, and readers will disconnect from your characters.
Invent your own swear words
This is another popular option – to furnish your characters with cursing unique to their world. As I said before, this can be great world building, as it’s a chance to explore what the characters in your story think is worthy of ingrained disapproval.
The invective ‘scruffy-looking nerf herder’ is one of the most famous examples of this, and comes from Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. You may or may not think this sci-fi insult works, but it’s worth noting that it’s said by a princess to a smuggler outlaw. The audience understands the context of ‘herder’, and the meaning of ‘scruffy’, and can deduce that this is actually something of a class-based insult. In that light, it suits the characters and their relationship, and implies both a recognizable class structure and the friction that results.
That said, almost everything I wrote in Shakespeare Invented Words, Should You Do It Too? applies here. Words are part of a grand, complex clockwork, and it takes surprising insight to slot a new cog into proceedings. Your best bet is to hew close to existing curses and modify them for your needs, as with ‘Grud’ and ‘drokk’ from 2000 AD – which are partial portmanteaus of lesser invectives such as ‘crud’ and ‘dross’ – or ‘smeg’ and ‘scrote’ from Red Dwarf and Porridge.
Porridge faced a problem in coming up with its own swear words – as a family sitcom set in a prison, the writers were conscious that it wasn’t possible to swear, but that neglecting to do so would betray the realistic prison life they were trying to portray. The resultant work-around insult, ‘scrote’, was so perfectly observed that it entered into common, non-ironic parlance.Inventing new swear words is difficult, but there have been success stories.Click To Tweet
It’s a thin line to walk, though. For instance, Firefly’s ‘frack/frak’ scans for many viewers, while Guardians of the Galaxy’s ‘flark’ is less well-received. The former is mapped to existing speech, and again utilizes much milder language in a new context, while the latter just doesn’t sound like something you can bark in a moment of frustration.
Those are the major methods of avoiding swearing. They’re all valid choices, and works don’t need swearing to pop or feel real. That said, if you’ve come with me this far, I’d like to invite you to consider the case for swearing.
The case for swearing
Earlier, I quoted comedian Bill Bailey’s observation that swearing can be like ‘a linguistic bomb’. It’s true – well-placed swearing can be an incredibly effective way to communicate with the reader. Swearing is an effective literary device, and whether you use it a lot or a little, you’re removing an arrow from your quiver if you choose to forgo it completely.
I’ll go on to talk about how swearing can be used effectively, but that’s not the only reason it’s important. As observed by Irvine Welsh, swearing as a communication tool is not distributed equally throughout the social and cultural strata. Some people are more comfortable with swearing, or more likely to use it in a social setting, and so to ban it outright is to misrepresent certain speakers – sanitizing them and chipping away at an individuality and cultural nuance that’s often hard-won.
It seems to be an attempt to erase and/or marginalise certain cultures, i.e. the working class, the ghetto, and so on. Language is a living, organic thing. If you start to try to control that and prescribe what people say, the next thing is prescribing what people think.
– Irvine Welsh, ‘Putin’s ban: Let’s hear it for swearing!‘ in The Guardian
This is a particular point of pride among Scottish writers, with many arguing that removing casual swearing would render them unable to depict an accurate picture of Scottish, working-class life. This can be seen in books such as John Niven’s The Amateurs, where swearing, among other uses, just makes the characters seem real and relatable.
The problem with this kind of sanitization is that it can have unexpected consequences. A lot of our worst curse words are derogatory terms for women. It’s completely understandable that it’s something many readers (and writers) don’t want to see in print, but removing these terms also whitewashes situations and characters of their misogyny (or the misogyny they face), and the same can be true for class and race.Swearing doesn’t just tell the reader about a character, but about their world.Click To Tweet
That’s not to say that every swear word should always be on the table, but it does mean authors need to think about their decisions and make informed choices. Often, it’s better to honor reality than elide real experiences.
That’s the case for swearing – maybe it convinced you, maybe it didn’t, but hopefully it’s something you’ll consider when deciding on the type of language you want in your story. Now, it’s time to return to the idea of not just justifying swear words, but using them effectively. Be warned: there’s swearing from here on in.
Swearing like a champ
Swearing is clever – or, rather, it can be. Swearing can be used in a lot of different ways, but it’s primarily used to intensify discourse. It’s deliberately ‘apart’ from usual language, and so invoking it tends to suggest that the topic under discussion is similarly apart. A person or situation is so bad that it can only be described via a swear word, or you’re so startled or annoyed that nothing else will do. Usually, swearing is a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ response.
Of course, it can be used in exactly the opposite way (as in the work of authors such as John Niven), but even that can be understood in the context of its original function. That a group of people break that ‘glass’ so frequently can suggest an inherent transgression in their communication – a deliberate or unconscious deviation from ‘polite’ or even ‘mainstream’ language. As with masculinity, swearing can’t always be understood as its base form, but it can always be understood in reference to that form.
Swearing for laughs
Swearing for humor is about understanding this intensifier role. Remember, though, that intensity depends on rarity. Something which is done constantly stops feeling intense, so to get the most reaction to your swearing, it should be sparse.
This is the case in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. The authors make a point of drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that one character, an angel named Aziraphale, never usually swears.
“Oh dear,” muttered Aziraphale, not swearing with the practiced ease of one who has spent six thousand years not swearing, and who wasn’t going to start now.
This, of course, merely sets the stage for the moment when he does. This is a one-two joke: as the angel tries to contact an ally and stop the end of the world, he gets an answering machine and utters the word ‘Bugger’, something which the narrative notes is ‘the first time he’d sworn in more than four thousand years’. This mild transgression is just the set-up, putting the reader at ease for the moment when the angel accidentally steps into a magic circle and is removed from the mortal plane.
Aziraphale looked down at his feet… He’d stepped into the circle.
“Oh, fuck,” he said.
There was a melodious twang, and the blue glow vanished. So did Aziraphale.
It’s a hilarious moment, but it works because of all the negative space surrounding it – Aziraphale has to not swear (and the reader has to see him ‘not swear’) for hundreds of pages to give that one expletive real kick.Swearing is an intensifier – it gets weaker with repetition.Click To Tweet
Of course, there is a way to cheat – by using ‘super-swearing’ to render a new word just as intense compared to regular swearing as regular swearing is to normal discourse. This is based on the incongruity-resolution theory that I discussed in Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh. If you can make the reader ‘comfortable’ with swearing and then make an impression with yet another step up, you’ll get a big laugh. This is the case in Ryan Reynolds’ infamous (and unrepeatable) line from Blade Trinity.
Incongruity works both ways, and it can be just as funny to downplay an invective. Blade Trinity also includes the insult ‘you fucking fruitcake’, which is novel in how it goes from the profane to the childish, and comedian Fred MacAulay has a great routine in which he jokingly rails against the overuse of cursing in the Scottish vernacular, relating an occasion when he saw a sports fan rise from their seat to abuse the players:
Something happened on the pitch that the man five rows in front of me was not at all happy about, and he stood up, and he pointed at the pitch, and he shouted, “Fuckin’… booo!”
Because, y’know, sometimes ‘boo’ just isn’t enough.
– Fred MacAulay, Mock the Week
Likewise, there are some brilliant moments of swearing in In Bruges which depend on a mix of creative language, dissonant settings, and genuine shock-value to earn their laughter (such as when gangster Harry sets about smashing his phone, barking back at his wife’s protest of “It’s an inanimate fucking object!” with “You’re an inanimate fucking object!”)
Swearing for impact
Much of the above can also be applied to cursing for impact, but here the intensifier status of a swear word is used sincerely. That doesn’t mean that it’s any less versatile.
Swearing for impact is usually favored near the end of a work, as the ramp up in intensity often leaves the author nowhere else to go. This can be found in Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In this quasi-autobiographical work, Eggers gradually reveals more and more of his inner thoughts and turmoil, meditating that he wants to be both understood and punished by the vast, faceless readership he imagines beyond the page. On the final page, he offers himself up for judgement and/or connection.
Don’t you know that I am connected to you? Don’t you know that I’m trying to pump blood to you, that this is for you… I’m trying to get your stupid fucking attention I’ve been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you this— What the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers, what does it fucking take what do you want how much do you want because I am willing and I’ll stand before you and I’ll raise my arms and give you my chest and throat and wait, and I’ve been so old for so long, for you, for you, I want it fast and right through me— Oh do it, do it, you motherfuckers, do it do it you fuckers finally, finally, finally.
It’s an effective, gripping ending that draws on all the uncertainty, self-consciousness, and spectacle to end with a bang – masterful communication, even as it represents an inability to communicate (an unexpected success; Eggers notes in the companion piece, Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, that the reader response was actually one of kindness, understanding, and empathy).
Swearing can also be used at the start of the work, though it’s a riskier proposition. When it works, it sets the reader on edge, demanding their instant focus and then spending that coin wisely. This is the case in the Philip Larkin poem, ‘This Be The Verse’.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Larkin’s poem begins with (and hinges on) a particularly audacious statement, and he phrases it in a particularly audacious way. The word ‘fuck’ is right there, instantly, before the reader – a kind of challenge, and one that works in the same way as the statement of his initial line.
These words begin and end works, but the logic carries over to a scene or conversation. A curse is generally a moment of intensity (or a false moment of intensity, as discussed earlier), and can be best deployed in reference to the rhythm and flow of a conversation. It can, in fact, be used to spice up the middle.
This is the case in a quote from musician Noel Gallagher, telling an anecdote about his wife’s unwillingness to get him a birthday present.
I didn’t even get a fucking birthday present last time. Fucking hell! She pulls out that one: ‘But you’ve got everything! How many more effects pedals can I buy you?’ One more! One fucking more will do. One more!
– Noel Gallagher, ‘36 Brutally Honest And Sweary Things Noel Gallagher Has Actually Said’ from Buzzfeed
Here, ‘one fucking more’ repackages the sentiment in a new way. Not only does this bring new life to the point, but it resets the reader’s expectation so that the ‘One more!’ that follows is new again. Swearing in the middle of speech offers a new angle on the idea – humor emerges (yet again from incongruity-resolution theory), but the sentiment can also be sincerely repeated while keeping the reader engaged.
Swearing for character
Sometimes, you’ll want to have a character swear to show who they are and how they interact with the world. It makes sense that the angel in Good Omens would choose not to swear, just as more worldly or earthy characters might swear frequently.
Again, infrequency is generally your friend. Seeing the circumstances in which a character swears tells the reader something about their priorities. Swearing can also be used to depict their nature. If a character swears at their dog, they’ll seem highly strung, but if the reader only sees a character swear when they stub their toe, they’ll feel more relatable.
Remember, also, to consider a character’s awareness of their swearing. In X-Force, Peter Milligan has a character swear using tmesis (separating a compound word with an intervening words, for example ‘these ants are every-fucking-where’) and then point out that he has done so, guessing that a colleague would probably be surprised to know he understands the term. It’s a jarring move from profanity to intellect, and successfully conveys the idea that this character has hidden depths.
Swearing is often used to threaten or degrade, so a character’s conscious and subconscious choices can say a lot about them. In what situations do they reach for a swear word, and what does it say about their attitudes? This relates back to the inherent misogyny/classism/racism of certain terms that I touched on earlier.
Like any literary device, swearing can be turned on its head. In The Walking Dead, writer Robert Kirkman has the character Negan swear constantly. It’s a transgressive mode of speech for a dangerous, unpredictable character, but it also lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Negan’s swearing is fun but constant – if everything is intense, nothing is – so when he commits an act of instant and brutal violence, it’s generally a surprise. Not only that, but shocked out of complacency, the reader realizes that he’s been dangerous all along; they just got too comfortable to see it. Even if they can adjust, they realize that there’s no way to know when Negan is ramping up to violence. His swearing is chaff, stopping the reader getting a fix on his true mental state (and the threat he poses because of it).
This isn’t just true for the reader: other characters struggle to gauge Negan’s mood, and this too is worth considering. Your characters should have different attitudes to swearing, and they should have different reactions to hearing swear words from others. This is an effective way to communicate relationships without employing explicit description. If the reader sees one character swear and another flinch, we now know a lot about these characters – their personal tastes and, crucially, the idea that the latter character doesn’t feel comfortable confronting the former. Add in a smile by the swearer at the response and you’ve just demonstrated a tense power play in a deeply subtle way (a great example of folding, in fact).How characters react to cursing tells the reader more than how often they curse.Click To Tweet
In comparison, have two friends refer to each other using the most offensive slurs – neither minding in the least – and it’s easy to convey an incredibly firm friendship.
Time period, social reality, nationality, and a host of other factors will influence what it means when certain characters swear. Here, the only answer is research, and to make sure your reader understands all the context you’re choosing to draw on.
There are many ways to use (and not use) swearing in your writing. In terms of quantity, there’s no wrong choice – even if that choice is ‘none at all’ – so long as it’s a decision that comes from informed consideration. Swearing is at its best when it’s purposeful, and hopefully the tips above will help you consider its place in your writing.
Do you think swearing should be kept to a minimum or is there nothing you love more than a creative string of profanities? Let me know in the comments! Or, to read more about making people laugh, check out Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh. For those who have caught the censorship bug, there’s also How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words.