To curse or not to curse, that is the question.

This, I believe, has been a long-standing question in the literary world. Each writer is different in what they like and how they prefer to write. Some avoid cursing altogether, some use it sparingly, some drop the F-bomb every once in a while and some practically drown their books with curse words.

Now I don’t know if I’m a minority or anything, but I try my best to avoid curse words… both in writing and in my personal life. It is very rare for anyone to hear me cursing or saying something less than appropriate. The most I will probably say is damn, and the expression, “Sacrebléu!” amuses me greatly. That said, however, I don’t avoid books or movies that contain cursing. It’s just when the characters start going crazy with their crudeness that I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth.

While I know that real life is not all sunshine and daisies and curse words are employed quite regularly in the everyday language, I don’t see their purpose or literary merit when it comes to fiction. Some might say that it’s realistic and manages to show just how angry or peeved a character is, but as someone once told me, you don’t need to use swearing to show that. A good writer will be able to show the reader just how angry their character is by employing other techniques.

For example, you could say that your character was clenching their fists, or that there was a look of murderous rage in their eyes, or their glare was burning twin holes into someone else’s head, or that a vein was throbbing in their temple… the possibilities are endless. Even without all that, the tone makes all the difference. A character could say, “I’m going to f***ing kill you!”, but they could also say, “I’m going to kill you.” and get an ominous, creepy effect.

I’m thinking maybe that shop owner should increase prices. (Source: http://www.bizarro.com/)

Ultimately it’s up to the author to decide whether they want to go clean or not. It’s a personal preference and I respect that, and in most situations it wouldn’t stop me from reading a book or watching a movie… but it can be sometimes jarring. One example that comes to mind is Ted, a movie about a teddy bear that comes to life. You may have a heard of it. It has an interesting premise, but I was aghast at the amount of swearing spouting out of that bear’s mouth… and I was only watching the trailer! I mean, is that really necessary?

I like my stories to be clean, so I avoid cursing and avoid sex scenes. I may include references or a simple kiss here and there, but I don’t go beyond that. I have no qualms about writing a disturbing murder, but I still refuse to venture into naughtiness. I don’t claim to be a better person/writer for it, and some of my favourite authors include both these things in their stories, but as I said… it all comes down to preference! One should write what they like. =]

What do you think? Do you include smatterings of curse words in your books or do you avoid them altogether? How do you feel about books or movies with such content?

59 thoughts on “To curse or not to curse, that is the question.

  1. Nice post? Very interesting – you are a far purer person than I Zen. In fact, if Snow White were to write a book I’m sure even she’d drop the F bomb at least once.
    I like to have profanities and expletives in my stories to show the general rage or emotion. In reality, if one were to become angry or emotionally traumatised, swearing would be a stereotypical normality that would occur in my opinion. Basically, I agree with the point you developed that some would consider this realistic. I know that in books by Robin Cook, he refuses to use profanities, so you find terms like ‘golly gosh’ in their stead. No offence to the man, he can write, but the terminology he uses to replace the beautiful, I mean, the bad swear words is considerably annoying in my opinion.
    As for swearing in movies – I think on occasion, like in Bad Boys, the film becomes lost in the profanity – but a little here and there doesn’t leave a person permanently damaged.

    • Hi there! No worries about the question mark. xD And you’re exaggerating by using Snow White as an example!
      I know that people tend to use expletives when they’re angry and I’ve seen it happen. I guess, however, since I don’t use expletives myself, I like my characters to be as well-behaved as can be, haha. Though I agree that “golly gosh” sounds pretty weird.
      I remember Bad Boys. The amount of cussing in that one was over the top!

  2. I can’t include it in my writing, but I have to admit, I say a few of them when the circumstances are appropriate… heehee :) Sex scenes are a bit more tricky for me. I enjoy a steamy scene without sex.. if you know what I mean. :)

  3. this is what we should have passed on to the present generation of children & youth….The directive that cursing n profanity should not be used as opposed to the license with which people all around the world uses swear words: just because Everybody uses it- so much so the youth truly believe that Profanity is a common n universal language!!Thank-u for putting this out there

    • You’re welcome, and thank you for your comment! You’re right; before cursing used to be such a taboo, but these days everybody does it without a second thought. =[

  4. I do not like to use profanity in my writing without reason. I also never use the F-bomb. I was raised that the F-bomb was the big daddy of bad words.

    “Damn” is the word I’m most likely to use.

    I agree that we can find so many ways of writing expressions/emotions that most of the time profanity doesn’t need to be used. However, you have to be true to your story and your characters. A character’s use of profanity can be a deep part of their personality that you simply cannot get rid of.

    I have a female character who had a rough upbringing, she struggles deeply with trust and finds it impossible to allow anyone to do anything for her. As an adult she struggles with her femininity, feels that being a women makes her look weak in the eyes of the male world. She dresses rough. She plays rough. She talks rough. I simply wouldn’t be true to my character if I didn’t let her swear. :)

    • Same here! F-bomb was always the most terrible of all curse words, and it still is.
      And I suppose that’s fair. A rough character like that wouldn’t sound realistic without swearing, and in that case it would be an issue of whether to write such a character or not. Personally I’ve never had a character like that, so I wouldn’t know how to judge! Or maybe I would’ve just written something like, “She uttered a string of expletives.”
      Thank you for the comment! =]

  5. Zen, not surprisingly, I agree with you. My books are pretty squeaky clean, although I do allow Susan an occasional “crap!” I read an article about swearing in your writing, and the author also used it sparingly. She said if the person would use it in real life, and it fit the situation, then she would use it, but not for sensationalism. I think I used “minor” swear words three times over the course of my books, and certainly not the f-bomb. It’s just not in my character or in my book’s characters. The funny thing is, I don’t mind it so much in movies, but it’s off-putting to see it too much in books. And yes, I tend to be slightly prudish; I find out why movies are r-rated before going, and there are no sex scenes in my book – just some fun romance.

    • In the grand scheme of things, “Crap!” sounds pretty tame and I do use it sometimes. And I agree with that author. I don’t think swearing should be written just for the shock effect. I think we don’t mind it in movies because it happens quickly, you hear it then it’s gone, but when you’re reading a book, a process which takes longer than watching a movie and you keep coming across swear words, they tend to stick more in your mind. Also, I do that too! I always go to the Parents Guide in IMDb before watching any movie, haha.

  6. I had a character once (based on a couple of people I know in real life) that used curses as easily as humans breath, but instead of including them in her dialog, I used the narrator to point it out so technically, there was a lot of swearing going on, but my readers weren’t subjected to reading it. I will put a book down, walk out of a movie, or stop talking to folks if every other word is profane. A curse word here or there to add emphasis or express an emotion, I’m okay with.

    • That’s a pretty good way of doing it! You remain true to your character and yet you avoid the express use of expletives. And I’m more or less the same way, I can’t really put up with things or people if they’re been too profane. =[

  7. I believe in curse words used extremely sparingly for dramatic or comedic effect. When they’re scattered all over the place, they just lose their meaning. I tried to write a story with a character who curses all the time, but it just felt artificial to me. Maybe that’s because the people I hang out with don’t curse a lot, so I’m not used to it. Regardless, excellent post :)

    • Thank you for your comment, Michelle! I think the environment in which an author grew and the people surrounding them do play a part in this. Like you, the people I hang out with don’t curse either, so it feels weird to include them in my book.

  8. I think that people are more adjusted to hearing swear words and can tolerate them more in Movies, but since people don’t see them written all that often it can be very jarring. I don’t think it is bad to include swear words, but it is easier to go overboard in writing them. I would have no problem if a character used swears to make their dialogue distinct from someone else in the story. But to have everyone swearing all the time, just like having a book full of adverbs, is a sign of lazy writing.

    • That’s a fair point! I don’t find that expletives bother me too much when watching a movie, but I do feel irked when I see them written. And I agree that it’s pretty lazy. Rather than put effort into making a character appear rough, some authors prefer to use the easy way out and just have them curse endlessly.
      Thank you for commenting!

  9. I avoid them in reading writing and speaking. I don’t need that stuff floating around in my head. It just makes me more frustrated or angry.

    • It does seem to generate that sort of feeling, doesn’t it? It feels like the more you associate yourself with such words, the more you’re likely to use them and cause anger.

  10. I can handle a few of the more graphic curse words, but if they proliferate on a page and do not add anything to the story or character I will usually put the book down. I can listen to my neighbors to get my fill of curse words. However, I do enjoy creative curses – such as “May your children be just like you!”.

  11. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with most swear words – and, to me, they kind of lose thier offensiveness after a while. I don’t mind them in books or film, but I noticed a few people using them in Creative Writing just to shock. Now, that, I can’t stand. Anything used purely for shock value just makes me think someone doesn’t have the talent/drive to do something else.

    I used swearing more than I usually did when one of my characters started to lose it, but I was trying to convey a kind of “you should pity him” vibe more than anything else, because he is trying to shock the people he’s with, but I wasn’t using it to offend the reader.

    As for sex versus violence…I avoided writing sex scenes for a long time because they can just make me feel awkward, mainly because I don’t think I could do them well. And when I did really try to write one…it ended up pretty violent, totally different than what I set out to write. Violence seems more commonplace in society than sex, maybe that’s why it’s ‘easier’ in a way to write than sex scenes?

    • Agreed. If the swearing doesn’t do anything to the story or develops it in any way, then it’s not necessary. That’s just lazy writing.
      Hmm. I think you may have a point there. Violence does seem to be available everywhere… you don’t have to be an adult to know what violence is, and people in general are more used to it. In fact, most people probably experienced it one way or another.
      Thanks for the comment!

  12. Seriously, I’ve never even thought about that. And just off the spot, I couldn’t even say if I let my characters curse or not. I think they do it sometimes, as others have stated above, sparingly. But it’s definitely not in any amount that would be noticeable. I think.
    I guess it depends on the story and on how they are used… If it belongs in there, it belongs. If the only use is to make the character sound ‘rough’, then I’d agree, it’s sloppy writing, because there are other ways to do that. :)

    • Yep! It just annoys me when there’s a swear word in every other sentence. One can use them sparingly to express utmost frustration or anger, but to integrate them in every other sentence so you can give your character a rough appearance… that’s just tasteless and sloppy.

  13. Excessive use of curse words shows an appalling lack of creativity!! I have no problem with sex scenes, but I suggest reading them aloud before sending them out into the world–if you’re not careful, they can be unintentionally comical. :-)

  14. My husband swears like a sailor. My dad, who WAS a sailor for 20 years, never says anything stronger than, “Oh, stink.” Never. Except when he was in ICU and had to cough, he let out one “Damn it” because it was so painful. I knew he meant business.

    • See, that would be an example where swearing is acceptable. Doing something out of a person’s nature really shows how strongly they must be feeling. I hope your dad’s doing well, Robin!

  15. I think Robin has an excellent point – used sparsely they can be effective – I personally do not use words in my writing that I do not use in my everyday life, and I make it a general rule not to curse unless someone makes me really really really really mad and that does not happen too often

  16. I try to avoid the cursing unless I’m writing about a cursing character. I think I average about out one strong curse word in each of my stories and when I do my mother gets stuck into me :D

    I can’t write the sex scenes and have never seriously tried. If people don’t know what goes on in the bedroom, that’s their bad luck! I prefer to let the imagination run wild instead of giving a blow-by-blow description :)

    Great post!

    • Ahaha, I can imagine your mother giving you a disapproving look whenever she comes across a curse word.
      And I agree with you that it’s better to let the imagination do all the work! One can refer to the presence of a sex scene and break it off before the reader sees anything.

  17. I think it’s more about being true to the character. For instance I just wrote a scene where my main male character drops an f-bomb. The female MC isn’t looking at him so she can’t see the throbbing vein, etc. (and the book is written in the first person so I can’t mention it if she doesn’t see it) so the swear is what draws her attention to something. And the type of person he is, he just wouldn’t say ‘crap’ or ‘how unfortunate.’ It’s a once-in-awhile thing, for sure, but I won’t shy away from it. Same goes with sex. It can be such an important part of the relationship dynamic between two people that ending with ‘they went into the bedroom and shut the door behind them’ just doesn’t always show the growth or change in the relationship. For me, when writing, sex scenes are more about the dialogue – external and internal – that occurs during them (and I don’t mean dirty talk) because so much more happens during sex than sex. If none of that stuff is happening, then it’s just gratuitous and should be cut. IMO of course.

    • I agree, it’s completely dependent on the characters involved. I don’t think it’s right to use either swear words or sex scenes for shock tactics but I also wouldn’t avoid them for fear of offending my readers. It’s all about what’s right for the story – everything else is secondary to that.

    • In the situation you mentioned, I agree that swearing can be effective. I’m just against it being used in excess. As for sex scenes, you may be right about the fact that there’s more to sex than just sex, but mostly it seems that authors just include them to excite the audience. As I said, it’s mostly a personal preference. =]

  18. Great post, Zen! I, too, try to avoid profanity and sex scenes in my writing, but then I am focusing on YA! :) i agree that a lot of movies, and some fiction, lose the plot in the profanity. They go so far trying to be, I don’t know, cool??? That they completely veer away from the basics such as plot, conflict and character development. While In daily life, I can swear like a sailor if the occasion calls for it, I have found myself putting down some adult fiction because it is so overeridden with profanity and gratuitous sex scenes that I am completely turned off. Why is it, especially in adult fantasy lit, that authors feel compelled to focus on inteer-species sexual relations and/or rape scenes??

    • I think coolness has been mistakenly associated with swearing, just like some people smoke or drink for the sole purpose of appearing cool. And you know, you’re right; it’s always adult fantasy that seems to be completely filled with such scenes. I’m currently reading American Gods, and there’s one sex scene that’s… disturbing to the say the least.

  19. I was actually thinking of writing a post about this myself! Unfortunately, I have the mouth of a sailor, so cussing is pretty common in my real life conversations (This is something I’m working on much more now that my friends have started having kids though! :P).

    However, excessive cursing really bothers me to find in writing. The occasional use, for emphasis etc does not bother me, but I feel like there is a significant lack of creativity present if the author just falls back on the F word constantly. There have actually been a few blogs that I have un-followed recently because of their tendency to over-use swear words. Somehow, reading the words make them come across so much more…crass to me than they do in real life!
    Movies I’m in the middle about. I can appreciate a bit more swearing than in books, but movies like “True Romance” (especially at the end) are a bit too much for me – using swear words every other word just about. At that point, I have trouble even following the plot!

    I guess what it comes down to for me, is that whether you’re writing a letter or a book, you have the time to sit down and consciously choose your words – and you can go back and edit them! Which is a luxury not held in a spoken conversation. Therefore, I feel like there’s really no excuse to not at least TRY to be more eloquent while writing than while speaking.

    Sorry for the longest comment ever! Like I said, I had some thoughts on this very subject reeling around my mind already :D Great post!

    • Haha, don’t worry about the long comment. I don’t mind. =D

      I agree that it sounds much worse in writing. I have come across some blogs that use expletives in excess and I didn’t like it. Since a blog is a way by which we talk to others, it would feel as if the blogger was being a bit disrespectful to their readers. I agree that there’s no excuse to it in writing. You can easily hit Backspace and the swear word would no longer be there.

      Have you watched Bad Boys or Ted? These movies have so much swearing and crudeness that it feels they exceed the normal dialogue!

      • I haven’t seen either of those, but it doesn’t surprise me that Ted has excessive swearing – Seth McFarlane loves to push buttons!
        Isn’t Will Smith in Bad Boys? It always bums me out when they ruin a perfectly entertaining movie with swearing and gross language for no reason.

        • It’s a shame though. Ted seems like it could be a pretty cool movie!
          And yes, he is. I agree – I just don’t see why so much swearing is needed in one single movie. =/

  20. I think it needs to fit with the tone of the character. For instance, I could never see Harry Potter cursing, but perhaps Molly Weasley. There are many references like the one above in literature. You may not like using certain words or suggestive scenes, but you are also the voice of your characters. Your writing is their life, and you control every aspect of it. So, if a character does curse, maybe he/she doesn’t do in within the confines of the story. But! The reader can still obviously tell that this character would be the type of person to curse, should they meet them in real life.

    • Oh I can picture Molly cursing too. The moment were she swore at Bellatrix was really powerful (though I wish it had been as powerful in the movie!). And I don’t have a problem with writing a character who might curse, it’s just the amount of cursing that bothers me. As one of the people who commented said, you can allude to the fact that your character curses without actually including any of the actual swear words!

  21. I’m not a huge fan of a ton of cursing in books, but I also do think it can add a dash of realism to some characters. For example, whenever I read a book that features teenagers that doesn’t have any swearing, I smile and shake my head, because it was clearly written by a grown up with an idealized view of their own adolescence. John Green’s characters swear every now and then, and I maintain that he writes the most realistic and meaningful books for teens that are out right now.

  22. As a performance poet I’ve been to far too many poetry slams, etc., where inferior poets think that by continuously gratuitously swearing they’re expressing passion and anger. A poor substitute for subtle word play!
    Not that I’m a prude. I will “curse’ where artistically appropriate. To put it in context; I have a body of70-80 poems I’ve memorized for performances, and in those poems I “swear” maybe three times.
    And when i do it cuts like a scalpel
    because I use my words with surgical precision.

  23. Pingback: WordPress Bloggers Quotable Quotes | poemattic

  24. Pingback: To Curse or not to Curse | Writing Fiction Blog

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