*Warning—I try to keep it academic and classy, but this article does, by necessity, contain adult language.
Profanity, cussing, cursing, swearing, obscenity—whatever word you use to describe it, adult language has become prevalent in our daily lives, in everything from television to social media. Some people seem to drop the f-bomb every other word, while others are horrified by even the mildest terms.
When we write, we try to speak to and reflect the culture of our readers, and there’s no denying that such language is a part of that culture. So, how do we decide what’s appropriate to include in our writing?
What is adult language?
As with many other questions relating to language, the answer is “it depends.” Mainly, it depends on the opinion of the individual.
Some people are more tolerant of crudity (fuck, shit, etc.) than blasphemy (God, Jesus H. Christ, etc.) or vice versa, while others are more concerned with the “strength” of the profanity than the class.
If you trace the history and etymology of a lot of socially acceptable words and phrases, you find that they’re just watered-down versions of other phrases. For example, darn means damn it, which is a shortened version of God damn it.
Also, different countries and cultures classify different words as adult language, even though we all speak English. What Americans might consider mild profanity or even completely fine might horrify Brits.
The key is to know your readers and what they’re comfortable with. There’s a delicate balance between pushing boundaries and turning people away.
Audience and Message
As with any language choices, a writer needs to take into consideration why they’re writing and who they’re writing for.
Some vocabulary just isn’t appropriate for formal academic or religious works. Likewise, most readers of Christian fiction wouldn’t appreciate it. And parents generally don’t want to see it in the books they read their children.
However, unless you’re careful, it might ring false to have a gritty, unrefined character in your novel speaking G-rated dialogue, especially if you’re writing a crime thriller aimed at adults.
What is the tone you’re trying to create in your writing? And does the language you chose serve that purpose?
Like any other element of language, profanity does serve a purpose—to deliver a punch of emphasis or emotion. Because of the controversial nature of the words, they startle the listener or reader into perking up their ears and sharpening their attention.
Think of the difference between the following:
You horrible, mean person!
You fucking asshole!
Which one delivers more of a metaphorical slap to the face?
Careful, though. Because if every sentence reads like the second one, you lose your impact. The frequency of use dilutes the punch of the unexpected obscenity. And prose with profanity in every sentence, or even multiple times within sentences, starts to look unintelligent and is, honestly, hard to read and understand.
Follow Standard Grammar Rules
Believe it or not, even profanity follows grammar rules. We’re usually unaware that we’re following rules, but do both of the following read equally correct to you?
The fact that you can pick out the first example as the one that follows the “rule” is just more evidence that we’re all experts in our native language, even if we can’t say why the second example is wrong. (“Fucking” should be placed before the stressed syllable.)
But what if you want something between G-rated and R-rated? There are a couple of options, and what you choose will depend on the tone you’re going for.
First, you could go the comic book route and replace some or all the letters in the word with special characers: @**hole, fu—, sh*t, @&%$?! This method has a striking visual feel to it.
Or you could get creative with replacing the profanity with other, more innocuous, words whose meaning, based on context, is obvious to the reader without coming across as crude or offensive. This route allows more room for you to let your creativity fly and can build on your characters’ unique voices.
We’re all familiar with people who are trying to stop cursing in front of their children, using fudge in place of fuck. But you don’t have to be constrained by what has already been invented. Create your own. And who knows? You might just start the next trend!
The point of this fascinating little grammar lesson is that, if you decide that profanity is appropriate and necessary for your writing, make sure that it follows standard usage so that it flows naturally into your work and adds to the story rather than distracting from it.
Resources for Further Study
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.