Swearing in writing: Giving an F


07 August 2023
Author James McCreet considers the role of expletives in fiction

Although we may routinely employ it in everyday life, the use of colourful language in fiction is still contentious. Where do you draw the line?

There was a time not so very long ago when books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer could be banned for the language used in them more than the nature of their stories. Even Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (1964) was obliged to spell out certain words phonetically, as in ‘Freddie, Uncle, Charlie, Katie.’ Absurdly enough, the latter example was specifically a conversation about expletives.

Nowadays, it seems that swear words have entirely lost their taboo in most aspects of culture and society, but they still have the power to offend. Some readers dislike seeing them and may refuse to buy or finish a book containing expletives, while others have their own rating scale of what’s permissible in terms of severity or frequency. It’s a complex area for writers. Should we use these words or not? If so, when? And how?

Genre blending

Swearing has been around for a long time with various levels of taboo, but the fact remains: it is a part of everyday language for many people. Even if we don’t use the words, we know them. We may think them when we hit our head on a cupboard door or when a thief makes off with our bike. It would therefore make perfect sense for these words to appear in creative writing, especially when portraying characters who habitually swear or situations in which swearing is expected because it’s entirely normalised. We wouldn’t expect Irvine Welsh’s heroin addicts to speak without obscenities, nor soldiers in a realistic military story.

Readers are responsible for the books they choose to read. It would be naïve to pick up a crime novel based around the rap culture of South Central LA and be shocked to find profanity. Equally, one might be justifiably surprised if picking up a romance novel with a lavender-hued cover only to read an X-rated tirade on the first page. We can’t deny the existence of these words, but we can limit our exposure to them if sensitive.
This, then, is one of the main guiding factors for writers: match the language to the character and the genre. Know your reader. Some of the racier modern romance titles may use spicy verbs in the bedroom, but even these must be carefully chosen and fall within an ‘acceptable’ range of common expletives. A monologue of Anglo-Saxon explicitness may veer away from genre expectations.

Word power

Veracity is one thing, but we also need to understand the fundamentally taboo nature of obscene words. They are intended to shock and provoke. They occupy a semi-forbidden space in the lexicon – or, at least, they should. When swear words have the same currency as any other word, they are no longer expletives. Their power must be respected or they become effectively obsolete.

You need to justify every swear word you use, just as you need to justify the use of any verb or adjective. Why is it the right word in a given circumstance? Does it show anger or frustration? Is it funny or emphatic? Does it capture an authentic voice or ambience? Is it simply real and honest? All are legitimate reasons for using expletives (depending on genre), but it’s not quite that simple.

As I say, routine use of profane and obscene language normalises it. If your characters or narrator are swearing all the time, where do you go for an extra level? Swear words exist precisely because they are outer or upper limit. When your character uses the same words to order a croissant as he does avenging the death of his brother, what tools are left to the writer? An exclamation mark? Italics?

There are some words – I’m sure we can all agree on one of them – that retain their power. If I, or one of my characters, were going to use such a word, I’d make sure that it appeared only once in the entire novel and that it came with the shock it merited. In fact, I’m someone who no longer uses expletives in day-to-day speech because I believe it’s unimaginative and reveals a person whose language choices are dictated too forcefully by culture and society rather than by personality. Which leads us to . . .

Killer vs filler

The etymology of the ‘expletive’ defines it as mere filler: something that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence but which adds colour or tone. It’s fine for characters to use swear words in dialogue or for an in-character narrator to use them, but there are usually more effective options. Originality – something new for the reader, which they have to mentally process – can be more powerful than words and phrases they’ve seen a million times before.

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For example, you might have your villain say something like, ‘I’m going to [insert expletive] kill you!’ This would certainly show anger or powerful intent. But they could also say, ‘I’m going to push this blade to the hilt through the sucking ventricles of your heart,’ which is arguably more threatening and driven by hatred, albeit more controlled. (You could equally combine the two.)

If you’re going to have swearing throughout the book, it needs to remain consistent and become background ambience. If you’re going to use it strategically (for a single character, say, or an explosive moment) it becomes more of a fine instrument. Many copyeditors will give you feedback on how to handle the balance. If your novel has swearing on the first page, this will announce to the prospective reader that it’s a specific kind of book and they may decide to read or not read further based on this alone. The use of expletives announces a certain kind of reading experience. The same is true of foreign-language words or literary language – we always set out our tonal stall in the initial pages.

Effing your text

n the movie Schindler’s List, we meet Ralph Fiennes’ character Amon Goethe in the back of a convertible car touring the Warsaw ghetto. A subordinate asks him if he has any questions and he replies: ‘Jah. Why is the top down? I’m fucking freezing.’ These are the first words he utters and I believe he is the first character until this point to swear. The single expletive shows us he is bad.

Even though we all know and possibly use the word, his use of it isolates the word from the lexical tone around him and maximises its taboo nature. It is, I believe, the best way to handle expletives in prose. Similarly, you might have a new character walk into a genteel tea shop and order a fresh-cream scone using the filthiest language, signalling to the reader that this character is not only vulgar but dangerous – he doesn’t recognise (or care about) social norms. He may be a sociopath.

Let’s imagine a scene in which a character is intending to master a task. They attempt it over and over before finally giving up with a single exclamatory word or phrase. Which would you choose? There are some pretty obvious ones. The word or phrase you choose will tell us a lot about the person – potentially more than a paragraph of description. How about if they said ‘Bum!’ Or ‘Jeepers!’ Or ‘Goshdarnit!’ Or ‘Thundershite!’ I’d argue that any one of those would be more interesting (and unexpected) than a typical phrase to express frustration/anger. The reader would take notice and ask, ‘What kind of character is this?’

Mix and match

Let’s be honest, swearing is also an art capable of almost limitless variation and innovation. It can be used as a jazz accompaniment to the main focus of the sentence. You can use it as a primary colour, but it can also be interesting to blend it. Is ‘thundershite’ really a word? It is now. It’s the kind of word only that particular character uses. It’s said that when John Lennon first heard Paul McCartney’s solo recording of Coming Up while in a taxi, he remarked, ‘Fuck a pig! It’s Paul!’ – which, I suggest, was an idiosyncratic use of swearing from the lyricist of Strawberry Fields.

By all means, use expletives, but use them in the same way you’d use any language: judiciously, strategically, musically. When I was at university, I lived with a couple of very religious lads who requested that me and a friend not swear in the house. Instead (and, yes, to spite them), we made up a nonsense word and used that in lieu of swearing, but its use and context so powerfully identified it as a pseudo-expletive that the religious boys also asked us to censor that one. The word we’d made up! Apart from our basic puerility, the story demonstrates that a word attains the fullest power in its usage and overall context. You don’t need swear words. You do need swear words. You can make up your own swear words. In the end, we’re writers. We use language.


This article first appeared in the June 2023 issue of Writing Magazine


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