Swearing in Children's Stories

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I recently read Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, the first part of a trilogy called The Book Of Dust.

Overall, I enjoyed it but was a little shocked at the number of swearwords—not because they didn't fit the boy speaker's way of expressing himself—more because of the likely age of most readers of the story.

I'm not so naïve that I think children don't know how to swear, but there is a danger that normalising bad language in fiction will lead to overuse in day-to-day speech. Swearing isn't always a bad thing, as this article points out:

Philip Pullman's swearwords are a useful lesson for children

I've only ever written poetry for young readers, none of which had anything ruder than the word 'bum' in it. With my crime novels for adult readers, I'm well aware that there should be a lot more swearing in the dialogue, were I going for verisimilitude, as coppers and criminals aren't known for being genteel. Instead, I have my characters use swearing in times of stress.

Various famous children's books have included swearing, such as David Almond's Skellig, which caused his publishers to have a heated debate over his use of the word "bollocks"—they left them in! :rolleyes:

It could be argued that the use of swear words is age-sensitive when young readers are leaving childhood to become juveniles.

Censorship of anything is contentious, but should young readers' books carry warning stickers if they contain swearing? Sometimes swearing is a key element in the story. In 2014, Brian Conaghan published When Mr. Dog Bites, which tells the story of a teenager with Tourette's Syndrome, a condition the author knows well, as he suffers with it. Every swearword appears in the text, but in a realistic way and not done to be sensational:

When Mr. Dog Bites

If you write for children, how do you deal with swearing?

Do you make up swear words if you write Fantasy or Science Fiction?

This is a problem I have had to face all my life. I grew up for a while in the back-streets of the Midlands and I heard all sorts. I grew up and became a teacher, so I lost most if not all, of my colourful vocabulary, which was right and fitting to have done so.

Here in Italy, they have such a delightful array of swear words, which makes you feel that life is not worth living without them; such words blend well with the gregariousness of the Italian temperament, though the priest rolls his eyes in disapproval should he hear them.

However, swear words in English are real ugly things and do not resonate with impishness, therefore I don't use them, unless as you say Paul, am under pressure, and even then it would not be anything worse than sh-t. So, I feel, no matter what the background, swear words do not enhance anything at all, spoken or written; in fact, if they are left out one has the impression the atmosphere is much more congenial.
Do you make up swear words if you write Fantasy or Science Fiction?
Oh Smeg, why would you do that?;) (Just for the Red Dwarf fans out there!)
But seriously, how profane you can get away with being in junior (or for that matter senior) reading matter has always been a hot topic.
Personally, I feel that certain taboo words should not appear in fiction aimed at children under the age of about 16, by which age they probably know them all anyway.
There is a danger of making it too unrealistic, even comical, if the "swearing" is softer than would be expected of the characters in real life. ("Dad hit his thumb with the hammer. 'Oh poop!' he cried out.") Best perhaps just to leave it out and not try to "child swear" on the page.
The book The Curious Incident ... by Mark Haddon, was released in two versions, one for "adults" and the other for "children" with less of the profanities, but I doubt many people realised or cared much which their child read.
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I struggle with this in my books set in New Zealand. In particular, the word 'damn' here is not really considered swearing (I was totally shocked the first time I heard a kid say it, and even more shocked the first time I heard a teacher say it in front of kids). To leave this word out when writing Kiwi kids is awkward and makes the kids' dialogue ring false, but to leave it in is offensive to most other English speakers (read: most of the market).

I've partly gotten around this by making Draconic a language filled with swear words, which my characters use liberally. As one of my characters pointed out to his dad, "If we didn't use swear words, there'd be nothing left of the language." So far I haven't had any parents upset by the use of the words skobni, blarghstra, or metzi flenka. ;)
Oh Smeg, why would you do that?;) (Just for the Red Dwarf fans out there!)

Love this!

'What the frak!' Is another good one from BSG.

I think if you are aiming books at Children under 12 then you should cut the swearing. YA 12 - 18 I think has more room for swearing and to be honest avid readers at this age will pick up adult books littered with swearing anyway (I did!).
There are ways round it. Jk Rowling's Harry Potter series is full of swearing, but apart from occasional "damn"s and "bloody"s, it's either described ("Harry swore / cursed / muttered an oath" etc.) or invented ("Merlin's beard / underpants" etc.).

Roald Dahl also got round it in the BFG by using his invented giants' dialect, Gobblefunk. "Ugglefugh!" and so on.
Maybe, It is better to fade to mumble. Leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks.

My mom is drunk.
The sound of her fury is coming from downstairs in the kitchen. Slamming pots and pans and screaming curses announce her rage. When my mother drinks, she throws fits and tonight her temper tantrum is a rolling thunderstorm of anger.
My mother is, as they say, a work in progress. She divorced my father two years ago and remarried to the preacher with whom she had been having an affair. For the wife of a minister, she uses an impressive vocabulary of red-hot, four-letter words. Tonight those heated words make an appearance and she blazes like a forest fire. (Becoming A Man in the Shadowlands -- Dennis Randall)
I don't want to go off-topic when it comes to Swearing in Children's Stories...

...or the use of vulgar language in general. We decide which words we put into the mouths of our characters.

Although my WIP is an, at times, a sexually explicit story of survival, I am trying to craft a non-vulgar erotic story. Instead of fading to black, my sex scenes go to gray. Words matter.

My MC is a homeless Vietnam vet stuck in the middle of a batshit crazy cult of female preppers. They've been living off the grid for fifteen-years in a clothing-optional community under the leadership of Sheila Carson.

My dad was an author, playwright, and professor of drama at Ithica College back in the 1950s. I learned to write by watching how he built sets for his Broadway musical productions.

"If you need a wall, don't build the wall, build a suggestion of a wall. Use no more props that are necessary to the illusion. The audience will fill in the voids with their own vision. Too much detail will upstage the performers and detract from their words. The actors, not the scenery, should be the center of our focus," my father would tell me when I asked him, "What are you doing?"

As novelists, we become Gods (or Goddesses), with the powers stronger than any found at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. We are word wizards with the ability to conjure entire to create worlds, using nothing more than our words. Pretty heady stuff.

I decided to take an inventory of potentially offensive words. I searched for 'em in my 97.600-word manuscript and found:
  • 57 F-bombs
  • 75 "poop" words
  • 21 crap
  • 16 pricks
  • 15 asses
  • 12 vaginas
  • 6 shafts
Nouns matter. Tone matters. Characters matter. My book has a naturally sexy edge to it. After all, it's the story of a homeless vet trapped in a lesbian nudist colony as the Society of Sisters prepares for the end of the world. [Spoiler Alert! It does happen, my book is a Post-Apocalyptic adventure].

Genre matters. A lot. I do not want my story to be classified by Amazon as "Erotica." The E-rating is a death sentence which shuts off the vast majority of potential readers.

If our choice of words assigns our story an undesirable category, use different words to tell the same story.
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