Let’s get this out of the way right up front. This post is about “the f-bomb” and various other four- through fourteen-letter words and phrases 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 if that’s all the advice a writer gets, it’s not enough, 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.
Writers should use swearing, like every other use of language, with intent. Swearing in dialog can:
- Show extreme emotion;
- Show a character’s response to great physical pain or a sudden, unpleasant surprise;
- Describe 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 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 his situation that we hadn’t known before or which had changed enough to warrant the stronger language.
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 but the writer needs to make sure it’s 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 250 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 every part of speech except conjunctions and most of the other obscenities and vulgarities 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 places of current swear words. Most often in science fiction and fantasy, they’ll do it to introduce 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 regular vernacular.
Writers who don’t want to use real swear words will do the same in work they expect teens and younger kids to read. Unfortunately that taboo has become outdated. 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 example also illustrates another purpose for swearing: to reveal an attitude.
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 wearing and hurts the author’s credibility. Once the attitude is established, there’s little need for the swearing to continue.
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?
- 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?
- Does the language call inappropriate attention to itself through
- Underuse (does the author seem afraid to use it); or
- Artificiality (that is, made-up words)?
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.
When you’re reviewing a piece, how do you evaluate the author’s use of swearing?
 Doctors have shown swearing really does help ease the pain!