Everything I Need to Know About Swearing I Learned in High School

Swearing JF

Writers and readers assume that words have meaning and value. The prevalence and nonchalant attitude surrounding profanity in western culture might have us believe that using hardy vocabulary is appropriate willy-nilly – after all, that’s how we live. But perhaps that is the best reason to pay the most attention to when and where and why we drop these words: the more they are used casually, the less impact they bring to the page. We are depriving these infamous words of their full assault value when we use them like grandparents giving chocolate candy to toddlers (and the results in both cases are disastrous).

Everything I need to know about swearing I learned in high school. This boils down to two principles. One, for the best effect, swear sparingly. Two, swear when the situation requires it for authenticity.

When I played volleyball in high school, I played with a team that was expected to win the state championship. We played hard, and we won. Our coach was even-keeled, level-headed, and never swore. I don’t know if that last part was on principle or the thought just didn’t cross her mind. I was the youngest on the team so I didn’t get much playing time, but I will never forget the day my six teammates slouched off the court for a time-out during a regional match. They knew they deserved an earful. We were playing a second-tier team, and we were losing. If we lost, we were out of the tournament – nowhere close to state finishers. Our coach knew this was ridiculous. “Damn it,” she started.

I remember the shock on everyone’s faces. I remember the team marching back to their places on the court and winning. Why? Because she let the d-word fly when she never had before. Because we knew then that our play had breached a level of catastrophic nonsense that required a sharp kick in our collective mental focus to restart us. She could have railed on and on about inspiration and perspiration and superheroes and butterfly wings, but none of that would have had any impact on us. Boy howdy did that “Damn it” get a response.

In non-fiction, regular swearing makes the author sound angry or cynical. This came to mind while I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. The content in the books was solid, but both authors peppered their writing with a noticeable amount of cursing. I get it: when you drop profanity in here and there it makes the writing sound chummy. Experts can dole out advice about how to make mediocre writing less mediocre (or whatever advice they’re toting) without the reader feeling as though the author is breaking their fingers and smashing their keyboard. But also, I’m reading this because you’re a professional, not because you’re my college roommate. I don’t want to know about your ability to swear, I want to know about your writing. You’re not supposed to be my bud. (I accept that their response to this opinion can be “Yes, but I’m laughing all the way to the fucking bank.” Fair enough, doesn’t change my mind.)

In blog posts, the occasional pops and snorts of colorful banter are reasonable, but again, if it’s the only tool the writer has other than an emoji, I’m going to pass. Why? Because, when used in excess, expletives are empty words. Even when we use them in conversations, they’re similar to the presentation-busters of “oh,” and “um” and “uh.” In other words, they suggest inexperience, lack of polish, and carelessness. When someone uses a lot of swear words, I assume they don’t have much to say.

In fiction, constant swearing is lazy. A writer should be able to describe a character’s mood without resorting to every creative combination of four letters known to humanity. Just as a writer will (should) rigorously review and edit for tone and length and clarity, so too will a writer edit word choice. Each word must count for something. Move the plot forward. Reflect a character’s emotion. Describe context. When each word must defend its existence on the page, a well-timed, well-placed swear word will justify its presence.

My English teacher senior year of high school explained it this way in a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “If your leg gets blasted off in war, you’re not going to say ‘Oh, fudge.’ You’re going to scream “Fuuuuuucccckkkkk!'”

This isn’t about being offended. It’s about being distracted. A swear word (or lack thereof) should not detract from the action. Quite the opposite. It can and should be used to draw sharp attention and focus to a situation – either for authenticity or for shock. It can only be effective in writing if paired with the content and characters of it’s surroundings. If you’re writing in a war zone then using lollipops and ladybugs as verbal exclamations will make me close the book.

There is a scene in my Work-In-Progress that needs a swear word. I have placed one there specifically so that it will bring the full heft of its power to shock and alert. But making that word valuable is going to take a lot more hard writing on my part. Are the characters believable? Does the character’s background reasonably develop so that using the word will provoke a response from the reader? Does the timing work with the situation and the progression of the novel? So many more words need to go into the story for that combination of four letters to be effective.

If I can do all that, then dropping in this word will serve its purpose. That’s a huge “if.” But it must be done in order to work. After all, I’ll be the manuscript’s first reader, and now we both know how I feel about extravagant swearing in what I’m reading.

What expectations for swearing do you have when you’re reading? How do you determine when and where to include profanity in your writing?

254 thoughts on “Everything I Need to Know About Swearing I Learned in High School

    1. I definitely agree with everything said here. Mom and I were once listening to what was supposed to be a “motivational speech” online and let me tell you it was horrific. First of all the background music was very depressing and haunting almost. Second the guy dropped the “F bomb”. Not once not twice but what seemed like dozens of times in sequence. The first time he was talking about not doing something and if you do he preceded to say “F****** pathetic”. He said something else and then preceded to say the same thing. I admit it was quite an impact and a surprise the first time, and I was yet again surprised the second time, but after that I believe the message had lost it’s meaning. I deemed the whole thing mediocre.

      1. That’s a great example. It definitely gets your attention the first time, and then it loses its punch. Thanks for stopping and commenting!

  1. With so many word choices in just the English language a lone coming up with an alternative is easy. But a lot of words are over used seem to be barren of meaning at all. Swearing can spark attention though…hmmmmm For my Wellness Center Im considering: The Get Off Your A** Manifesto Guide to Motivation;-an alternative approach to the gentle art of self transformation; any takers?

  2. In non-fiction, regular swearing makes the author sound angry or cynical.

    I am angry and cynical most of the time, but that isn’t why I pepper some of my non-fiction writing with salty language, and it isn’t why many of the characters in my fiction tend to be foul-mouthed. Nor do I buy the notion that anger and cynicism drove Stephen King to use rough language in On Writing.

    Instead, I think it’s more about class. I’m a working-class guy from a working-class family. Stephen King is likewise of working-class origins. Because we’re working-class, our vocabulary tend to come more from the Germanic end of English than from the Latinate end that became part of English after William the Bastard and his crew sailed from Normandy in 1066 to conquer England.

    1. Oh, I don’t think that King used the language due to anger or cynicism – or Lamott – I think they both produced good books of generous information and experience to help writers. I suspect they included the language to create a style that was authentic and approachable – and they were mostly successful – but too much of it, for me, is distracting and unnecessary since I’m not likely to be duped into thinking that King or Lamott are going to chat me up one day (or relish the idea of me chatting them up) just because they sounded so “normal” in their writing.

      Interesting distinction about language and socio-economic positioning. Those considerations seem particularly relevant for writing fictional characters and determining their backgrounds and current situations. Thanks for the comments!

      1. The socioeconomic class dimensions of high English vs low English (Latinate vs Germanic) are certainly something I keep in mind in my own work. If you read my stuff, you’d find that my protagonists lean toward the Germanic, and my antagonists the Latinate.

        Naturally, I do it on purpose. Glad you found my comments useful. 🙂

  3. I learned what I needed to learn in middle school. The shock value brought muffled laughs in the lunch room. The novelty wore off quickly and I didn’t get the same reaction. It’s a window dressing if anything.

    1. Haha – I can picture lunch and muffled laughs now. Middle school is such ripe ground for finding new and better ways to stand out I can’t imagine it not being a hotbed of swearing exercises.

  4. If anyone reading this could check out my blog, that would be awesome…It’s a bit different to this one and aimed at teenagers/young adults. My blog is basically going to be a public diary where I post about events that occur in my life and my feelings and stuff…so, if you think you’ll like it, check it out 🙂 It would mean a lot to me…Thanks 🙂

  5. True…even tho I use it life (lol(in blogging I go back and forth on even using one swear word. Especially when you write, you shouldn’t have to rely on cursing for shock value to be “good”. That def means you lack context and content.

  6. Interesting and thought provoking post. It’s been awhile since I read King’s book “On Writing”, but I do recall he did use a bit of profanity in it, and it probably would have been just as good without it. In fiction there are instances in which profanity seems to fit, such as in dialog between characters who if they existed in real life would probably speak using profanity. But generally speaking I don’t care to read text that is overloaded with profanity.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. Your point about swearing used to create a “chummy” tone is spot on. Using some of the more lurid swear words in the course of nonfiction strikes me as unprofessional. Call me old-fashioned, but really classy people just don’t talk that way. I admit I use the occasional “hell” and “damn” in my blog writing, and I do so as a matter of emphasis when I feel strongly about the subject of the post.

  8. Interesting blog post. I swear too much, … or more specifically, I USED to swear too much. I still feel like I do, but really, I would curse a lot. I certainly don’t have nothing to say—I have a lot to say—I’m just very expressive, is my excuse, well, that and being raised by someone who curses a lot. Plus, I’m Scottish! So goes the stereotype.

    When it comes to writing in a creative manner, I try to keep it to a minimum as I know I personally wouldn’t want to read a post primarily consisting of profanity.

    But ‘damn’, though? Damn is just a regular word as far as I’m concerned, but I guess it was a lot stronger many years ago. I suppose profanity has escalated and will likely continue to do so.

    Great blog post—keep up the good work!

    1. Haha – that’s so funny about the word “damn.” I don’t know if it has gotten more or less potent – I’ve never been known for being “in” on trends so it could’ve been normalized back then,too. It had enough potency in that situation to get everyone moving, and that’s what stuck 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  9. Well when I think of it I swear in every sentence. I use all sorts of swears, except for “fuck”. I never liked it. I noticed I’ve been using it since the past few months, now I’m trying to get rid of it. But while blogging I don’t really. This is actually something we need to think of sometimes I suppose. It was a fun read 😊

  10. Nice post! I agree with most of what you’ve written. Lots of profanity in nonfiction writing is a major turnoff for me, and it makes me less likely to want to finish reading the piece. Many journalistic pieces and essays that I’ve read contain so much swearing that it dulls the author’s point and makes him or her seem unprofessional. With all of the words to choose from in the English language, I’ve always felt there were better alternatives. I’m only 22 and maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I grew up in a home where there was very little to no swearing, and I was always taught that it was not appropriate in professional speech or writing. However, I do understand and accept the occasional swear word when used in certain or appropriate contexts.

    1. I was raised in a similar home environment, went through a phase of using them regularly, and now I’m full circle trying to teach my girls how to communicate without the extras. They’ll probably go through the same cycle and on and on…different words, same choices to make. Thanks for commenting!

  11. What a great change in perspective! As a teacher, I see students trying to “spice up” their conversations and you bring about such excellent points! I always explain how lazy profanity can be…thank you for the extra reinforcement! 🙂

      1. And congrats on the Freshly Pressed press! So exciting. I blog over at aileengoeson.com, have been since 2008. I really enjoyed this and other pieces you’ve written and will be quoting this one as I work with a lot of teens who constantly try to make the point that swear words are irrelevant. Sheesh. Anyway, thanks for giving me words for my discussions with them!

  12. I have never seen the need to swear, maybe because I was very sheltered when growing up. I, too, do not understand well known authors whose latter works are sprinkled with needless swear words. This being said, I recently had the misfortune of working on a project with the worst kind of person I had ever met. He stepped on every team member’s toes and I was itching to curse him out on several occasions. Instead, I would ask a younger colleague who enjoys cursing to say a few colorful words about him, and she enjoyed it a lot. This made me feel lighter and better. Team members, including myself, talked to the man in a civilized way about his behavior but he did not change. We also also shouted at him at different times, but he still did not change. For the first time, I felt that insulting someone (albeit behind his back) was called for. In spite of this man, I think swearing should be avoided at all costs unless there is no other remedial action that can be taken.

    1. Oh – what a great story – sorry for you :/ Some people do have a knack for drumming up the worst in us all – I’m glad you found a solution that worked a little bit for everyone else involved. Hopefully you won’t have to deal with him too much in the future :/

  13. I loved this post and related to it a lot. I swear than I care to do admit and your blog made it seem okay:). I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind following my blog because I’m trying to get comments on blog. I’m new to this whole thing:)

    1. Haha – I have seen a few comments claiming/attributing swearing finesse to certain backgrounds. I’m going to take your word for it – I’m not sure I would want to be anywhere near a cowboy who is pissed and frustrated :/

  14. This was fantastically well written. Being in college everyone curses so much, myself included, and I never used to do it. The F-bomb is used as an adjective, verb, pronoun, conjunction, and so on. This post helps people realize the true use for the word and the appropriate situation to use it in, and having someone else state it, really is useful.
    Nice writing.

  15. Words define a person, including their relationships. One of my teachers refrains from swearing in class, but admits to doing so regularly with one of his friends. His vocabulary shows the difference between his professional side and the casual, chummy face he puts on. I, however, life by the rule of maximum effect, and only have three occasions that I have ever permitted “foul language” to extend from myself to a recipient.

    1. I do find it harder to accept a person as a professional if they swear regularly – as a friend it’s not an issue – the expectation is that someone can speak persuasively about his/her area of expertise without a lot of embellishment.

  16. For me, when I’m reading or listening to someone speak, if the amount of profanity used has become so extreme that I’m no longer able to focus on what the actual topic at hand is, I have a problem. As long as the meaning of the piece or conversation is not being sacrificed, I’m okay with swearing.

    1. I agree with that. It really is a matter of not being distracting. If it slips in here and there, I don’t think much of it, but if it keeps popping into conversation about anything and everything it becomes the focus instead of the original topic. Thanks for commenting!

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