Spitting Out the Words

When you curse in a story, what are you trying to do? Are you trying to shock the easily titillated? Are you trying to express a mood or help define a character? Are you trying to seem “realistic” and appeal to the jaded?

Many people curse without thinking about it. Some people even have a vocabulary so blue that we worry about bloodflow to their brains. But cursing is inappropriate at some times: At work. When writing a “refined” essay. When speaking to our in-laws. When my even-keeled father-in-law lets a naughty word slip, it’s really jarring.

There are very few words, no matter how innocent or plain, that all readers will see and all think the same thing, or feel the same way. Words are single grains of meaning, that really only make sense when they’re strung together, but “fuck” elicits a different reaction than “green” or “chelonian.”

Whether we’re censoring ourselves to avoid an email from Human Resources or a glance from our spouse’s parent, we choose when we use certain words. Putting aside the people who genuinely think that these words are intrinsically bad, many people think cursing is low-class or something that inarticulate people do, or that, if we salt and pepper our speech, other people will look at us like an inarticulate, hairy mushroom.

Why do we set some words aside? I think it’s partially because of radio and TV and movies’ self-censorship, and that may have grown out of Victorian-esque sensibilities. But before all that? The problem wasn’t so much one of spitting out particular emotionally-charged words, but a desire to appear refined and intelligent. So avoiding cursing grew out of that. (I think. I’m honestly under deadline and “pulling all of this out of my elbow” as my Dad used to say.)

We call it “heated language”, because we’re talking about things we say when we’re angry. So if “shit” escapes our lips at a more sedate time, when we’re level-headed and musing about smart stuff, will we be sending a mixed message? To some people, yes, we will.

As the taboos of language have been loosening, the purpose of the expletive is being lost as they lose their shock value. This may seem like a good thing–it gives the writer more tools to use–but seeing this as a good thing assumes that all readers are the same. In reality, “shit” may be considered mild by some audiences and shocking by others.

So go ahead and use curse words when you’re okay with that uncertainty–and if you’re okay with with the grain of emotion it’ll bring out in some readers. Know the normal averaging effect of language will be thrown a bit off-kilter: Some readers will glide past the naughty language, and others will be distracted by single words they find shocking or titillating.


Thanks to Martha Fein for editing help so extensive that it bordered on co-writing.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it.

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7 thoughts on “Spitting Out the Words

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  1. Seriously, though, in fiction, characterization is everything, or at least a large chunk of everything. Whether characters swear, how they swear, how much the swear, and in front of whom they will or will not swear, reveals a great deal. You don’t seem to be talking about dialogue here, though.

  2. I love this post. It agrees with my perspective. I think of language as a chest of drawers – with levels: top drawer words, middle drawer words, bottom drawer words, words that belong with the dust bunnies under the chest….

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