The Pros and Cons of Using Profanity In Your Stories

By PJ Parrish

Note: This post contains some salty language. 

Got an interesting fan email the other day. It was from a long-time reader who had just gotten around to getting our most recent Louis Kincaid book The Damage Done. She started off by telling us how much she loved our books but then went on to lament our use of…blue language. Here’s the nut graph of the letter:

I’m not a prude and my reading tastes go more toward more hardboiled authors than cozies.  In your latest book I counted 35 “damns” or “dammits,” 40 “hells,” almost as many “sh*ts” and 10 f-bombs. I realize that criminals and police officers use profanity. But I wonder if in your attempt to be realistic in your writing, you go too far in trying to mimic their speech.

First, I was sort of impressed that she took the time to count all the bad words. But second, and more important, I understood what she is saying. And it got me thinking — not for the first time because I’ve gotten letters like this before — about how we crime dogs deal with profanity in our novels.

Early in our series, my sister and I salted our dialogue with more profanity than we did later. I think it was because we did, indeed, get sucked into the notion that such language gave our books the imprimatur of “hardboiled.” (read that as “serious,” which is a really misguided distinction that many in our business still cling to.)

But as we got better at our craft, we realized that while yes, cops and bad guys swear and use un-PC vulgarities, we didn’t have to. At least as much as we were doing. Profanity, like adjectives, needs to be used sparingly, in my humble writer-opinion. You don’t need purple prose descriptions. So maybe you don’t need blue language crutches?

My writing life seems peppered with synchronicities, and sure enough, as I was working on this post yesterday, I happened upon a TV interview with John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He was on TV to promote his latest book, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever.

Fascinating guy. He talked about how our favorite nasty words (up two from George Carlins’ infamous Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television) have evolved over time to the point that even the shock value of the f-bomb has become diluted and it’s now commonplace.

He pointed out that, over the centuries, what we think of as nasty has evolved. In medieval times, when religion was the center of life, swearing to God was “a big deal.” But over the years, “God damn him” was shortened to “damn” and became less a “command to condemn,” as much as a “mere bark of annoyance,” McWhorter says.  To my mind, “damn” has faded from navy blue to soft denim.

McWhorter went on to say that as the power of religion waned, our obsession with our body functions — especially sex and excrement — became the focus of our profanity. Growing up in the Fifties, I remember just some kid whispering “fart” brought on a spasm of giggles. I don’t think I ever even heard the f-bomb until late high school. I suspect most elementary school kids today have a working, if clandestine, relationship with it.

Digression alert: If you want to blame someone for f—k, you can look to the Vikings, McWhorter says. When they invaded England in 787, they came armed with the f-bomb.

“A now obsolete Norwegian word like fukka would have been a fine candidate for what became our four-letter word of choice,” he said in an interview with the New York Post. “No squinting is necessary — fukka meant exactly what it looks like.”

It became common in England after that. One of the earliest recorded uses was in 1528 when a nameless monk was critiquing Cicero’s De Officiis and lamented the annoying  annotations of “a f-kin’ abbott.”

“After the 1500s, ‘f–k’ is rarely printed, not even appearing in dictionaries from 1795 to 1965,” McWhorter writes. I just checked my own 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1 and no f-bomb. The English have apparently cleaned up their act. Although I don’t think my English friend Crazy Tim got the memo since he peppers his emails with such a panoply of purple prose that I have to resort to Googling “Dirty Brit Slang” to translate.  I’ve learned such useful insults as pillock, wanker, tosser to add to my favorite — twit.

Digression alert: Children’s author Roald Dahl wrote a book called The Twits – a twisted tale of a vicious married couple who love to torment their pet monkeys and each other. (Mrs. Twit loves to take out her glass eye and drop it in Mr. Twit’s beer.) “Twit” has lost its original punch, and now is used, rather sweetly, for someone who’s being silly.

McWhorter thinks we make too much of profanity. In our long evolution of what we accept, he thinks the real forbidden words today are slurs, such as the N-word or “f—-t,” which originally meant a bundle of sticks but morphed into an insult for homosexuals.

So what does this mean for us crime dogs? Well, as I said, I thought it was good for me to clean up my act. Any time I find myself typing a blue word, I stop and think: “Do I really need this here?” I think it’s up to each of us to find our own paths, based on our writing styles, the tone of our books and yes, our personal beliefs.

Your writing should never call undue attention to itself, I think. Sure, your protag or bad guy might be profane, and well-placed small doses of profanity can add verisimilitude to your story. But your goal is to create believable characters, not make your readers get their knickers in a twist.

I have good friends who cringe when I let out a modest “damn” because they are deeply religious and consider it blasphemous. I try to respect that. I have other friends who use the f-bomb in daily speech with complete abandon. I myself use it. I guess because, as Professor McWhorter notes, swearing sometimes just feels good. He says that’s the way our brains process language and studies have shown that when humans swear, the right side of our brains — the area associated with emotion and cathartic expression — lights up on imaging scans.

“Curse words are not words, in a sense,” McWhorter says. “They’re eruptions.”

So, before I leave and let you all weigh in on where you stand about eruptions in your writing, I give you one last thing. It is from Monty Python, who elevate irreverence to a high art. I love this skit. But then, I am such a twit…


40 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Using Profanity In Your Stories

  1. Kris, I was a big fan of the old Law & Order (by old I mean up to and including Dennis Farina). What I noticed was that not once was one of the “forbidden” words used, yet it never detracted from the grit or the drama. I began to see that in fiction “realism” is not the goal. Anybody can do that. Rather, stylized reality is the goal…and also, attracting readers. I’ve never gotten a letter complaining that I don’t have cursing in my books. OTOH, I have numerous appreciative emails thanking me for writing without it.

    • Exactly. As you point out, our jobs is not to directly reflect realism (think of the bad dialogue you would get!) but to bend it to the style dictates and needs of good storytelling.

  2. Very interesting post, Kris. Thanks. I have undergone the same gradual catharsis that you have. I still use crude language in my writing on occasion when it is consistent with a character’s personality or when I am writing on my Chromebook and accidentally highlight, then erase, five or more paragraphs…

    • Yup…I still write, in the heat of first draft, in a deep shade of blue. But that’s always the first stuff I cull out.

  3. Profanity in books doesn’t bother me, if it fits the character. Heck, I survived watching Dexter.
    My cop would swear when he was around other cops, but not with the public or his girlfriend. I’ve had 2 complaints over my 30+ publications.
    Out of curiosity, I just ran Smart Edit’s profanity/risque language check on the current wip, (A covert ops/action adventure/romantic suspense) something I’d do normally when I start my editing.
    Hell: 16
    Ass 9
    Damn 8
    Shit 4
    Dipshit 1
    Asshole 1
    Bullshit 1
    Piss 1
    Clusterf*k 1
    Will all of them remain after edits? We’ll see what happens when I get there.
    But, I will say, I’d rather see profanity than writearounds which stop me as I figure out what word the author is trying to avoid. Or characters using substitutes that don’t fit the character.

    • Yes, that’s another good point you make. I prefer to see an honest use of profanity in the context of a character’s nature than some nampy-pampy run-around euphemisms. And yes, I have seen just that coming out of cops’s mouths in some books.

  4. I, too, and old enough to remember George Carlin’s “Seven Words…” routine and have to wonder what he’d rant about today (and the words he’d use to do it…)

    While reared and raised by a “sailor” who also “spoke French,” I tend to avoid WRITING in various shades of blue, and find myself “speed-bumped” by too much of it too soon in a story… so much so that I have just put the book aside for something else…

    How-some-ever… I have been known, on occasion, to blister the paint off the walls or adjacent vehicles by stringing together several choice phrases in an adjectival cascade of sometimes physiological impossibilities… which is claimed to be proof of a creative mind… and that must be a gift from the aforementioned seaman…

    • You want to look up Pacific v FCC. The radio station that played “the 7 words…” It is a supreme court case with a full explanation of the 7 words. Many school content filters used to block it.

  5. Yes, every author has to decide what’s right for their story. As a reader, hard core language distracts me from the story, just as it is distracting to talk to people who constantly speak the f-bomb (THAT is what I remember about the conversation, not the point they were trying to make).

    When drafting, I have probably used a mild word like damn but then it typically gets edited out in revision. I like what you mentioned in your post–that profanity is an “eruption”. That immediately made me ask myself “How else can I show a character having an eruption?” I’ll take that as a challenge.

    • BK: I stopped reading the works of one pretty famous author whose books were cramped with f-bombs. The milieu the writer was working called for it — hardcore gang street talk. But I just got distracted and eventually bored with it.

      • Funny you mention street gangs–as I was reading your post this morning I was thinking “It isn’t going to ring true if someone has a street gangster exclaiming “Oh my!” 😎 😎 😎

  6. You might enjoy this story from my memory bank from my days working in trad pub.

    At a certain point a genre we’ll refer to as Plantation Gothic was popular. Set on plantations (obviously) in the deep south, complete with Spanish moss, imposing manor houses, spoiled aristocrats, devoted, wise maids, and handsome, sinewy field hands, these stories focused on ominous goings on and, for those days, a bit of spicy sex.

    Plantation Gothics were a reliable way for beginning writers to learn the craft and the business, and for mid-list writers to make a living. Authors who could write them quickly did well. That genre and its authors developed their fans — a certain Mrs. Myers most definitely not among them.

    She expressed her displeasure in a hand-written screed accusing the author (everyone used pen names) of single-handedly destroying the moral fiber of the nation. She blamed him for short skirts, teen-age pregnancy, and the appalling spread of profanity.

    Also, she objected to his disgusting language — citing examples, of course — and the lewd behavior of those snooty, immoral aristocrats and the field hands who could not control their base impulses the way decent, god-fearing people did. She accused him of doing Satan’s work and informed him that, as a consequence, he would surely be condemned to burn in the hottest regions of hell for all eternity.

    The author, enchanted by Mrs. Myers’ feverish words, Xeroxed the letter and repurposed her epic into party invitations. We enjoyed an annual “Mrs. Myers party” for several years — or, most likely, until Plantation Gothic cooled down and went the way of the vintage nurse romances. [“Will beautiful nurse Nancy marry rich, handsome Doctor Elliott?”]

    Moral: Nothing is ever truly wasted in the hands of the truly creative.

    • Love your story. Thanks for the insight. Gives me a chance to note that in GWTW, Scarlett uses the n-word. Times change.

      And while I don’t remember Plantation Gothic, I was a sucker for nurse romance. (I was in love with Ben Casey).

  7. My husband could make a Marine drill instructor blush…and has! So bad language doesn’t faze me. But If some loudmouth throws f-bombs in public around other people, it really offends me. The words themselves aren’t nearly as bad as the attitude of disrespect to others.

    The male lead in my series uses profanity, causing the female lead to sometimes elbow him in the ribs. His foul mouth and her disapproval turn into a running joke.

    But, as the habitual smoker says, I’m trying to cut back.

    • Same here re loud use of f-bombs and other stuff in public. Really puts me off. But I have a true gift for stringing together a blistering stream of blue in my car, aimed at other drivers. I also sing Bohemian Rhapsody at a truly scary decibel.

  8. The language should fit the character and the story. Although reading along in a cozy and finding out that Martha Davies-Jones, while solving crimes and knitting caps for newborns, likes a good rogering and says so, might be interesting.

  9. In the movie “Hoffa” Jimmy Hoffa curses like well, a truck driver, everywhere. This upset one of my wife’s cousins a great deal. He was one of Hoffa’s attorneys. He said Jimmy would NEVER use that kind of language at home.

  10. Great post, Kris, and one that hits home for me. My Empowered series was peppered with swearing, because of my first person narrator’s background and situation. My urban fantasy Gremlin Night had “magical swearing” because cursing mattered, and words affected magic itself. Ordinary swearing took you out of the sorcerous mindset. It was fun.

    My current series, a library cozy, will have zero swearing. Being cozies, of course there’s no swearing, but honestly, I’m also happy to leave the swearing behind. It had its uses in the first series, but really, ended up taking at least some readers out of the narrative, and keeping them in the narrative is what really matters. I’m happier these days, too, without the swearing.

  11. Interesting discussion.

    One of the movie litmus tests in our house is language. We absolutely cannot stand scenes where the characters drop those f-bombs every other word. We’ll keep watching until we see that it isn’t going to change, then find something else to watch. IMHO, a good story in a movie is ruined by too much “realism”. I understand characters must be drawn in their own habitat, and speak the language that makes them who they are, but sometimes too much of it comes across as lazy writing to me. There must be a way these bad boys and girls can talk without resorting to “exploding” every other word. I don’t have a problem with other, more gentle swearing…but the filthy stuff I can’t handle. I saw a quote by a writer somewhere that went something like this: Words are just words. They should be used, and not condemned because they’re “bad”. Interesting take.

    When reading, I will lay aside a story fairly soon if the offending word crops up too often, say, twice on the first page. I guess I’m a lightweight. But there’s plenty of good novels out there that I can read which aren’t peppered with stuff I don’t like.

    In my own writing, I have one swear word in a WIP. Hell. Spoken by a bratty 14 year old girl, just to annoy her parents. I don’t plan to edit it out, because it helps to define who she is as a character. 🙂

    It is a matter of personal taste, and I’m glad there’s choices for all of us.

    • I stopped watching The Wolf of Wall Street because I got tired (bored) with the profanity. Obviously, if your setting is seedy, you might have to go there more, than say in a village cozy. But as Jim points out in his earlier comment, you can get away with a lot without saying much.

  12. I don’t use profanity in my mysteries. I’ve never had anyone complain that the characters weren’t realistic, but I’ve had many comments from readers who appreciate a clean novel. My goal is produce a story so engaging that no one will miss the “realism.”

    As a reader, I’m not offended by swear words, but once I sense they’re being used in place of thoughtful writing, I’ll put the book aside.

    I loved the video. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a PET scan of John Cleese’s brain?

    • I think it’s because you stay within the TONE of your story, Kay. Yeah, you could throw in a cuss word, but you’ve chosen a specific tone for your story and need to honor that. If you look at the guidelines for say, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, it’s pretty specific about profanity and such.

      And yeah, would love to see Cleese’s brain scan. 🙂

  13. When I read, the standard words are just static until the point they become so annoying I get bored. I tended to avoid them in my own writing because of the markets I was in, but, when they were needed, I tried to be creative like using lines like, “She then proceeded to tell him how many types of idiot he was with words he wouldn’t even use.”

  14. Great post, Kris! Informative and entertaining, as always! I like Marilynn’s approach above, or something like “he let out a string of profanities.” I’m sure you talented writers have lots of interesting phrases like that to get the message across.

    As an editor, I will flag silly, unrealistic substitutions like a tough cop or criminal saying “Gosh darn.” That’s more distracting than the (to me) pretty benign “goddamn.” Another highly unrealistic one for hardboiled types would be “Phooey.” Laughable. I like the substitute adjective “friggin’.” Kind of works, I think.
    Maybe you could suggest a few other substitutes for my authors…?
    Thanks for another great post!

    • About friggin’: I have my protag using that at times but sometimes to my ear and eye it sounds coy. And it’s not like the reader doesn’t know what you really mean to say. Yet in my own speech, I often use friggin instead of the f-bomb. Like when I make a bad play in pickleball. And instead of Samuel L. Jackson’s favorite expletive, I use “monkey farts.”

  15. I think I would have to agree with Mr. McWhorter, we as a culture put way too much importance to such language. The vast majority of people use these words and phrases on a daily basis—yet are offended when they hear them on TV show. in a move, or read them in a book. It actually borders on the hypocritical.

    I was once in a class and a woman questioned the instructors use of the profanity in the presentation. The instructor’s response to a woman who questioned the use of these words was “’Spaghetti’ and ‘f**k’ are the same. They’re only words. The only difference is the significance you add to them.”

    • McWhorther agrees with you that we place too much value on profane words — we over-invest importance into them. But as I quote in my post, he holds firm that the “new” profanity is slurs. Yet he makes the distinction between how black men will use the n-word as a substitute for “buddy.” But when white guys try to use it for the same, it sounds wrong. I haven’t read his entire book, so am not sure where it goes with this.

      • OMG this! During a low point in my life, I had a black friend tell me I needed to “get me some new n-words” except he said the actual word. I’m sure the expression on my face was hilarious because he just laughed and laughed. Then I laughed, realizing it was something he had license to say.

  16. For the record, I have no problem with curse words as long as their use doesn’t appear for be for gratuitous shock value alone. Same as violence or sex: If it serves the story and is true to the characters, then I’m all for it. If its sole purpose is to make me go, “Oh my, look at what they said/did!” then it’s lazy writing, but I probably won’t stop reading/watching as long as the overall work is solid. My characters all curse, including the big ones, but stop well short of the top end of the Scorsese Meter. (I also agree with others that watching a writer try to write around using a curse word is more obvious and annoying than just writing the word. I bought the book in the Adult section. I can handle it).

    BUT the main reason I wanted to comment was to share the trailer link for a Netflix documentary on the history of swear words, hosted by Nicolas Cage. It’s obviously NSFW, but if you don’t mind the language and are interested in an educational, comical exploration into the history of “bad” language, then I highly recommend checking it out, if you haven’t already:

  17. All too often on tv the news shows the bodycam footage or an eyewitness cell phone video of an arrest, etc. I am appalled at how often the cops are not just occasionally cursing, but cursing repeatedly, intentionally, and as a form of verbal abuse. I find this not just bothersome, but offensive, certainly well beyond any sort of professional line. If I were to read THAT level of profanity in a book I would put it down, no matter how “real” it was. (NB: I am not saying all cops are like this, nor some all of the time, but I’ve seen enough clips on tv enough times from enough places to believe that it’s not that rare.)

    The Twit of the Year contest is one of my all time favorite Monty Python sketches.

    • Thanks for weighing in Catfriend. And yeah, it is rather eye-popping to watch reality cop shows. Although it doesn’t surprise me. I have several cop friends and they say it’s pretty raunchy.

  18. I have over three decades in and around the true crime world. My current WIP is a based-on-true-crime series that takes readers right into the real world of criminal and forensic investigations. Part of that reality is that crooks and cops swear – it’s core to their being. I write swear words in dialogue where it’s true to the character and to leave it out would be inaccurate. However, I don’t use foul language gratuitously, and I rarely use profanity in narrative/exposition as I don’t see how it helps the story.

    Actually, I never give much thought to profanity and if it will offend a reader – except for the C-word. I’ve only use that word twice because in those cases there was nothing else that character would have said and I’ve made a writing pledge to write true crime and true people. As a note, I’ve never had a comment – good, bad, or otherwise – about profanity in my books. Thanks for raising this pertinent subject, Kris!

  19. I once edited a Christian romance where the author used the initials of curse words. Cursing is absolutely a no-go in that genre so I asked her about it and pointed out that using the initials was exactly the same as using the word, and using a goofy euphemism wasn’t any better. She ended up re-writing those scenes to say the character let lose a stream of expletives, or something like that.

    I curse up a blue stream, but only in certain company. So does the hubs, but I know to monitor myself in public and he sometimes forgets how far his voice travels. Oops.

    I do have certain characters in my current WIP curse, and sometimes the nastiest words. But it usually isn’t the law enforcement characters doing it. In fact, it’s only the female MC and only in certain circumstances. One of the bad guys is just flat out nasty and I don’t think it would work for him to not call her the b/c-words. However, the “real” bad guy is one of the most polite people on the planet even though he is a deplorable human being given what he’s doing. I try to be selective in who curses, when, and why. When reading, I don’t care about cursing unless it’s overdone and doesn’t seem to have a reason.

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