Bad language in books: need it or not?

What are your thoughts on the f-word on the page? Or even something stronger. Or is “God” blasphemous enough for you?

Is it time for books to be classified like films?

As swearing before watershed on TV seems to become the norm, surely bad language in books ought to be something to be shrugged at? But after talking to several people it does seem that reading a swear word is worse than hearing it.

Why is that? I think I can answer. It’s because you can breeze over a heard word, yet the word you’re reading has to be spelled out and logged in your head. It’s almost intrusive. everyone remembers when Jacqueline Wilson hit the news in 2008 because the superstore Asda forced her publisher to substitute “twit” for “twat” in her book, My Sister Jodie.

The book is aimed from ten years and above – how different from yesterday’s Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books when the strongest word was “gosh”!
I’m really torn for classification in children’s books. I’m part writer and part mother, so I can see both sides. I don’t want my seven year old reading “twat” (he’s an excellent reader, and finds books his age too easy), yet I don’t want more restrictions imposed on authors.

Generally, I find bad language in adult books hard to stay clear from – especially if you want your dialogue to sound natural. Parts of A Proper Charlie is on the streets of London in the red-light areas, and although I’ve managed to stay away from stronger language I’ve had to put in the odd p-word for authenticity.
So I’m impressed when I can read a book without gutter language and come away thinking how real and fresh it felt. In my eyes, the author did their job well in making me believe in the story without resorting to cursing like a bricklayer.

What do you think? Can swearing add that final ingredient to your novel, or does resorting to it make it sound amateurish?

21 thoughts on “Bad language in books: need it or not?

  1. From a 2006 poll concluding that swearing is on the uprise:
    “Nearly three-quarters of Americans questioned last week — 74 percent — said they encounter profanity in public frequently or occasionally, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. Two-thirds said they think people swear more than they did 20 years ago. And as for, well, the gold standard of foul words, a healthy 64 percent said they use the F-word — ranging from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent).”
    Read more:


  2. Using the f word is how real people really talk. It is used to express anger, comradery, and sometimes social class. Sitting next to two teen aged boys on the Boston T I hear twice the number of swears found in my novel in the first five minutes of their conversation. Language, even crude language can be used as a literary tool, in Spin the Plate it is used to show the main character letting go of her anger and hate. I doesn't mean the author is being lazy, quite the opposite. If there is a rating system in books it might be easier to mark those that are G rated.


  3. All I ask is that authors let me know before I buy a book that there is profanity and how much. I do not like blasphemy nor the f-word at all. I am smart enough to figure out the context in which the book is written to supply my own imagination if the author just says the character was cursing. I read a novel a day and never have to resort to a lazy author that uses the shock factor to get my attention. There are too many good authors who have real talent. P.S. How would you start getting a rating for books? I would be interested in a website focusing on this issue.


  4. Donna said, “I wonder if ones sensitivity to profanity has to do with your parents' reaction to your cursing as a child?”

    Good point. Swearing was never done in our house. I was even told off for calling my sister “cow”! I think I've taken on my parents' views that profanities are unnecessary.

    I sound stuck-up now 😦


  5. I can not participate now in discussion – there is no free time. But I will return – I will necessarily write that I think on this question.


  6. My thought on how many swear words to include in a novel is similar to “how many words should your novel be?”

    Answer 1: If the goal is to make it the best literary work possible, then exactly as many swear words as there needs to be, no more and no less.

    Answer 2: If the goal is to target the book to a specific audience, then exactly as many as your editor leaves/inserts.

    I wonder if ones sensitivity to profanity has to do with your parents' reaction to your cursing as a child? My parents treated it as a sign of immaturity, similar to making fart noises with your arm pit. I really don't notice swearing in books or movies, unless it seems out of place.

    Donna Anastasi


  7. Your profile pic is a little eeeoooow. 😉 Frighten the kiddies at Halloween?

    Re the swearing, I'm trying to think of similar films one was called Independence Day and the other (I think) Deep Impact. Both had the same theme, both exciting and fast-paced. Independence Day was full of f-this and f-that, but Deep Impact’s worse word was something like shit. Yet, nothing was taken away from Deep Impact despite the non-bad language.

    I know they aren’t books, but just saying…


  8. Agree with the above comments, it’s all relative to the character. If they would swear in a certain situation then you can’t just ignore that fact.

    Used sparingly, and not just for shock value, the right word can turn a whole scene on its head. Words can be very powerful, including swearing!

    What’s wrong with my beautiful profile pic Louise? It’s just a little shaving cut!


  9. It's all about the characters. If a character needs to swear, they need to swear.

    My MC doesn't swear. I'm not quite sure why she's just never felt that it was necessary to express herself…. this is rather, odd, because I actually have a rather bad mouth. SOmetimes I want her just to swear because sometimes, emotionally, I feel like it really does serve its purposes. But our characters will do what they will.


  10. It's all about the character. If it fits who they are then it has to be there.

    But children's books are in that category for a reason. I don't think kids need to read bad words in their books. They hear enough (too much) on TV, and most likely in real life.


  11. I've struggled with this SO much in my book. I write YA and my MC has grown up in the foster system, has been in juvenile hall, detention centers and jail.

    It seems utterly ridiculous for him to not curse. In the beginning I worried about alienating parents, but I finally decided I have to be true to the character, not try to appeal to the masses.

    My MC says sh*t all the time–but I've stayed away from the f word. He only uses it one or two times in the whole book, but both times are in really extreme situations.

    I always figure that, ultimately, it will be up to the editor. If an editor felt it would hurt the book rather than help it, I wouldn't argue the point on the f word…but I would on everything else.

    If you write a character with a really gritty past, how do you get away with having them never curse?


  12. Hi Louise! I made my way to your blog from The Writing World group on FaceBook. Nice to meet you!

    As a writer, I never prohibit my characters from saying something they would say, or doing something they would do. I feel strongly that a writer should stay true to her characters. By the same token, I wouldn't use strong language in a book for sheer shock value, especially when the characters or plot didn't call for it. And I am never offended by language in a book. However, I would be offended by anyone who decided strong language shouldn't have appeared in one I wrote.

    You have a wonderful space here. Write on!

    :)) Nicole


  13. I've noticed it's used a lot in chicklit and books like that – more so sometimes than say thrillers.

    I do know what you mean though. It's a fine-line I guess.

    Steven, your mugshot is scaring me!!


  14. To tell you the honest truth, as much as I personally hate the f-word, I don't think its the end of the world when it is used once in a while in a book, if the book contains serious subject matter or is a really intense thriller or suspense. That said, I do think the f-word should be used very sparingly and used only in really tense situations, ie, when characters are fighting. I must admit, that is the balance I'm trying to obtain in writing my new suspense, 'To be Maria'.


  15. Hmmm not so sure though. As I said, when I read a book without the swearing yet come away still “getting” the grittiness I'm impressed with how the writer handled it.

    I need to analyse a few f-word free books and see how they manage to retain their feel.

    I think I'm on the fence on this one.


  16. Yes, I think its f***ing necessary! Sorry, couldn’t resist 😀
    But seriously I do think it needs to be in some stories, for realism like you said.

    When my character regains consciousness with both his feet nailed to the floor I don’t want him to say

    “”Ooooh, ahh, that’s stings a lot! Owwy ow ow! This realisation has shocked and appalled me!”

    Not when he can just scream “f***!” and you instantly know all of the above information 🙂

    I can’t stand people who avoid swear words at ALL COSTS! Yes, you don’t have to like it but if you absolutely detest swearing then stop reading gritty crimes or gruesome horrors. They’re pretty much guaranteed to have swearing in at one point.


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