Let’s get this out of the way right up front. This post is about the “f-bomb” and various other phrases and four- through fourteen-letter words that are generally not used in polite company: swear words, curse words, obscenities, vulgarities, the whole lot, and the words we sometimes substitute for them. As a matter of convenience, I’ll call everything swearing.
I know you’ve all heard the usual advice to writers and their reviewers: if swear words are natural parts of a character’s way of speaking, don’t be shy about using them, even if that’s not the way you speak.
But that’s not really enough advice for a writer, nor is it enough for a critiquer trying to determine if such language is being used as it should. That’s what I want to get into now.
Uses of Swearing
Writers should use swearing, like every other kind of language, with intent. Swearing in dialog can:
- Show extreme emotion;
- Show a character’s response to great physical pain or a sudden, often unpleasant surprise;
- Describe, reveal an attitude about, or add emphasis to the (usually negative) description of another character, an action, an idea, etc.; or
- Add emphasis to irony or sarcasm. Note that using even very mild epithets, like golly-gee, can do this, too, particularly from a character who normally uses rougher terms.
Even when swearing is part of a character’s persona, swearing at random or too much is a problem. If a character swears all the time, it won’t take long before the reader feels like she’s being beaten over the head with it. Once the author has established that a character swears a lot, he doesn’t need to show every instance.
If swearing is not part of a character’s normal persona, when they do swear, there must be a good reason for it. I’m not referring here to a character using some mild term like, “oh, sugar,” but using a phrase like “oh, shit,” instead of what they would normally use. When this happens, it should reveal something about the person or her situation that we hadn’t known before or which had changed enough to warrant the stronger language.
Time and Place
Swearing also needs to be consistent with the time and culture of the story. If one 17th century pirate calls another a scurvy dog, readers will accept that. If Edna calls Millicent that at their weekly tea, however, it’s going to make the reader wonder. Swearing always calls attention to itself, which is why the writer needs to make sure it’s drawing the right kind of attention.
Along those lines, some think the fine art of scatology has lost its verve over the decades. Today’s vocabulary of swearage seems puny and limited compared to that of 150 or 200 years ago. When was the last time you heard someone called a lily-livered, yellow-bellied scalawag, for example? Today, different forms of “fuck” serve as almost every part of speech except conjunctions and most of the other obscenities and vulgarities in English have to do with sexual or excretory functions. Not much variety or creativity there.
Trying to overcome that poverty can have its own problems, however.
Writers sometimes make up words to take the place of current swear words. Most often in science fiction and fantasy, they’ll do it to introduce what they want the reader to believe are the swear words of the story’s time or place. These words almost always fail. They stand out just because they’re made up, rather than part of the reader’s regular vernacular.
Writers who don’t want to use real swear words in work they expect teens and younger kids to read may make up swear words too. Unfortunately that response to a perceived taboo has become outdated, and there are better ways of setting a better example. Writers are no longer protecting kids from words they don’t already know: just visit any junior high school or middle school playground.
Swearing can appear in narrative as well as dialog. It can be used in an indirect quote, such as, “Bob had been heard to refer to Ted as a fucking idiot.” This reveals something about Bob, Ted, and their relationship.
Particularly in non-fiction, the attitude being expressed can be the author’s rather than a character’s, when an author is trying to make a piece “edgy,” for example, or appealing to a certain audience: young and macho, say, or angry or rebellious. As in dialog, though, when swearing for attitude is used too much, it becomes annoying and hurts the author’s credibility. Once the attitude is established, there’s little need for the swearing to continue.
And of course, it can also be used in direct quotes from someone being interviewed or profiled.
A Caution for Reviewers
When you’re reviewing a work, and the author or her characters are using language you don’t—and maybe don’t approve of—it can be hard to evaluate the work objectively. Swearing, as an emotional action, naturally draws an emotional reaction too. If that happens to you, try to take a step back from the piece and remind yourself what you’re trying to do: to determine if the piece “works” for its intended audience. Just as a writer needs to “put on the clothes” of his characters, you may need to exchange your usual “wardrobe” for that of the piece’s target audience.
Questions for You
So as a reviewer, how do you determine whether the swearing—or the lack of it—in a work is necessary, appropriate, and effective? Here are some tests you can use.
- Is the language the character is using appropriate to his or her personality, culture, era, and situation? If not, what doesn’t fit? What can the author do to fix that?
- Does it:
- Add relevant information about the speaker or another character that can’t or shouldn’t be presented some other way?
- Reveal something new and unexpected about the character?
- Demonstrate a character’s extreme emotion or physical pain?
- Help the speaker express irony or sarcasm?
- Illustrate or create an attitude, in the character or the piece?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, and that seems to have been the author’s intent, what can she do to fix it?
- Does the language call inappropriate attention to itself through overuse, underuse (does the author seem afraid to use it), or artificiality (that is, made-up words)? If so, what needs to change?
For better or worse, obscenities, vulgarities, and swearing in general are parts of the language of every culture. As a result, they have a legitimate place in literature. Proper, purposeful use can, as with any other form of speech, add to a work’s effectiveness and power—or detract from it.
reviewing a piece, how do you evaluate the author’s use of swearing? If you’ve
got some suggestions, don’t keep them a damn secret! Share them in the comments
 Doctors have shown swearing really does help ease pain!