Those Four-Letter Words

In middle school and high school, it was practically a fashion statement to use four-letter words all the time. I suppose we used those words to act older or tougher, but in the end, it only made us look like fools.

Even so, it irritates me when there is deliberately-avoided profanity in YA books. I can’t remember which book I read, but in place of the f-word was “frickin” and it drove me crazy. It didn’t feel real to me. Teenagers curse a lot in real life. I couldn’t go down the halls of my high school without hearing the f-word pinging off the lockers like a stray bullet.

I’m not saying to use four-letter words a lot; just enough to remind the reader that, yes – this is a book that features realistic teenagers speaking in a realistic way. I recently finished Fall for Anything by Courtney Summers and I thought that book had a little bit too much of the f-word. But it was very realistic.

The moral of the story is… in YA novels, there is a delicate balance between too much cursing and too little. Some readers will be offended by just one curse word. But no matter what you write, you will offend somebody, somewhere. You can’t please them all, so do what feels natural for your novel and your characters.

18 thoughts on “Those Four-Letter Words

  1. I agree with you on this, but it’s a toughy. My guess is that some YA publishers would not publish a book rich in realistic language.

    You’re right about the unrealistic sound of placebo words.

    I like what Stephen King says about realistic language… actually about any situation when it comes to writing. “Tell the truth”, he says, and he does.

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  2. I was just talking about this on another blog this morning, but personally I don’t like to read stuff rich in curse words, but I don’t mind the use of anything if it’s warranted. Of course, there are situations where the f-bomb would be said by someone and should be written, but to have dialogue laced with curse words, I’m not really a fan.

    I also, however, hate replacement words. I just got done watching Battlestar Galactica in which they use “frak” in place of the other word. It was a Sci-Fi show, so I know why they did it that way, but it def took some getting use to.

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    1. I used to use a lot of curse words in my writing, but really cut down on them once I read my own work back to myself. It’s so irritating to read so much profanity! Thanks, Peter!

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  3. I suspect that the Young Adult genre has two audiences. There’s the audience that will buy the book, namely teens and young adults, but there’s also the audience of moralists who have to approve publication. The truth is, though, that teenagers know when they’re being preached to or when something has been Bowdlerized.

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  4. Using certain words when they are warranted is fine. It’s when it goes overboard just to be dramatic that I might get annoyed. Though I agree that sometimes filler words do make it sound even worse. But I guess there are a lot of factors involved with the writer’s wishes, the publisher’s, the editor’s. Just like anything else, people have their preferences. The line between too little and too much can change with each person.

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  5. I love to hear people who shouldn’t use bad language swear, like your granny or a priest. It has a real force behind it, or comedy, depending on the context, which can be useful when you want to show real emotion/drama in a character. Less is more. If I ever hear my dad swear I know the world is about to end.

    Or it can work the other way round (if that makes sense). Like Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. He swears his way through the film but (SPOILER ALERT!!!) when he realises he’s about to get shot in the head all he says is, ‘Oh, no.’ Brilliant. All the gangster front is gone when he faces the end…

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  6. Good post! I do agree with you.
    And I think it goes for all genres, really. No need to overdo it, but if the characters swear, then we should let them. 🙂

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  7. Good points. Have you read House of Night series, they started out using silly swear word replacements like bull-poopie but have now suddenly used the f-word like someone told them it’s now okay to swear werid. I think the language has to fit the characters above all else, swearing or otherwise. I personally wouldn’t shy away from it as you say most teens swear!

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    1. Strange… it’s like those ghost-written series of novels that start out one way then turn out totally different because the ghost-writers were changed. Interesting.

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  8. I love this topic, and wrote about it once, too. The bottom line is just as you said: be true to the story and characters. It’s funny, though, since I became a parent and consciously stopped swearing, when I hear those words in conversations, it kinda makes me pause.

    Totally off-topic: my two-and-a-half-year-old keeps saying “shoot” and “gosh.” If she mimics what she’s hearing from me, I must sound super-silly.

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