Profanity: A Relief Denied Even to Prayer.

ProfanityUnder certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” Mark Twain

Sooner or later, in this age of email, Amazon reviews and Twitter, today’s novelist will turn on her computer and discover that an unhappy reader is complaining about her language.  The emails follow a pattern. I read your book and found XX word(s) and I will never read you again. My good friend Casey Daniels/Kylie Logan received an email like that and had to scour the book in question to find the single use of the word that had so infuriated and upset the reader.

The word? Damn.

When this happens to me, I’m fine. I support that reader’s decision to find other authors she can enjoy and wish her well–and yes, those readers usually are women. If a word or two is upsetting enough to dash off an angry email, the reader should only buy books that are clearly marketed as inspirational, which has rules all its own, no profanity of any kind among them.

Profanity, of course, is subjective. I remember calling a truck a “pick-up” in Australia and being taken aside and told that trucks are called “utes.” A “pick-up” was a woman selling herself on the street corner. I, of course, was taken aback when told that Australian erasers are called rubbers. While neither of those examples are actually profanity, you get the gist. Meanings change. Words are, after all, simply combinations of vowels and consonants that are even pronounced differently in different places.

What makes a word profane? At least for the people who are counting and reporting? Three possibilities.

  • The idea behind the word. The object or action it represents.
  • Words that suggest sexual acts.
  • Words that blaspheme God or religion.

According to to curse someone is “to wish or invoke evil, calamity, injury, or destruction upon.” No wonder cursing has such a bad reputation.

Writers who may or may not use profanity in their daily life, are often in a quandary when it comes to using it in their novels. Why is this an issue? Why not just avoid it?

  • The author is positive that the person he or she has created and knows intimately would use profanity in moments of stress or even as a way to impress or outrage others.
  • Substituting “Oh, fudge,” or “Golly, gee,” for more realistic and graphic alternatives would be silly and inject humor into a serious interchange.
  • One episode of swearing from a character who hasn’t sworn to that point will demonstrate how outraged that character is.
  • Profanity demonstrates in only a few words what a character is feeling.

Novelists are tasked with creating believable and sympathetic characters. They don’t have to be perfect; they don’t even have to be good. But as the story develops, the reader wants to know those characters inside and out. For the most part this goal means that characters have to be grounded in reality. It’s our job as novelists to convey those characters well in believable ways.

One of the characters in my novel When We Were Sisters is an internationally famous pop star. The major character of my last novel, The Color of Light, newly at bookstores, is a Protestant minister.

Now, you tell me? Which of these two women is more likely to use profanity? Time’s up, and you got it right. Analiese most likely pruned her vocabulary after years as a television news reporter and now, as a minister, is careful with words. But Cecilia in When We Were Sisters is a completely different story. Her world is different. Her background? Couldn’t be more different. Her philosophy? You got it.


So, while profanity is delicately scattered through the novel in progress, and I studiously avoid the worst of it by not repeating everything we’re told Cecilia is saying, I will still likely get a letter or two from readers who, like Casey/Kylie’s choose never to read me again.

And you know what? That’s okay.

Where do you stand? Will you set aside a novel if you find a word you object to? Or do you even notice? Or care?

Ernest Hemingway addressed this subject many years ago. Thanks, E.H. for the perfect ending.

“I’ve tried to reduce profanity but I reduced so much profanity when writing the book that I’m afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.”  Ernest Hemingway





  1. April Mc Vey on August 11, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Cussing is so relative to perspective ! My uncle use to get upset with me for saying ” fish sticks and tarter sauce” when I was upset. Said I should not cuss! Grr , I hAve learned to just smile and nod my head. Some times cussing in a book is a point that needs tone expressed. So J just nod and be glad it’s not a porn moment !

  2. amyc on August 11, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    It depends how the book is marketed. If it is considered Christian Fiction, then I expect it not to have profanity. If it does, I find it disturbing and feel lied to that it is listed as CF.
    On the other hand, I read everything. I don’t mind a few profane words in a book as long as it isn’t laced with many many F bombs.

  3. janetsm on August 11, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    You put it beautifully, Emilie. Fiction must reflect real life in order to be believable. In a perfect world, there would be no profanity. Few people enjoy reading about flawless characters, though, so I think a profane word used sparingly demonstrates anger or frustration. If over-used, profanity loses it’s punch and distracts one from the story. I have struggled with this very issue in the manuscript of what I hope will be my debut novel. I had “damn” in it twice and decided to clean it up and present it as Christian Fiction; however, I concluded that it’s not believable that everyone in the congregation was a goody-two-shoes — especially in light of the pastor’s murder. My inner conflict over this has proven to be a learning experience as I strive to be a writer. I appreciate the validation I found in your blog today.

    • Emilie Richards on August 13, 2015 at 8:37 am

      Wishing you the best of luck with the book. If you really “can’t” use even a hint of profanity, I still think it’s acceptable to say something like: “She listened to a stream of words she had hoped never to hear. When he finished she continued. . .” That can get you out of a lot of jams.

      • janetsm on August 14, 2015 at 12:56 am

        That’s a good point! Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Joice Coleman Mander on August 11, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    Profanity isn’t a way that I choose to express myself, usually, and, I am not fond of the way some people use it indescritionately on facebook or in their everyday conversations, though it can definitely be an attention grabber!

    That being said, I am not offended by it in books that I choose to read. I believe it is an effective method of developing the characters, tone and mood in written material.

  5. Kathleen Bylsma on August 11, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    Sometimes crude words must be used to amplify the point. Those who take offense need to take a chill pill.
    Gratuitous bad language is a horse of a different color and one simply avoids people who employ it.
    I am more offended by ignorance than just about anything else. There really is no excuse for ignorance.

  6. Lynn Ross on August 13, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    My husband always said, “Profanity is like spice: very effective if used in small quantities.” He also says that excessive swearing is the sign of a poor vocabulary. I have to agree with him on both counts, however, I have been known to turn the air blue on occasion. In books, I think it adds to the integrity of the story as long as it isn’t excessive. And there are “clean” swear words and “filth.” I don’t like filthy language. I think you answered it perfectly. It took me a paragraph to say that I really don’t have anything to add. 🙂 By the way, The Color of Light was just wonderful!

  7. Kate on August 18, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I had an English teacher in high school. She was a maiden lady, nearing retirement. I remember the day she tossed one of the boys out of class for profanity, then turned to the rest of us and said “Profanity is an uneducated mind, striving to express itself.” Since this was senior academic English Literature, she tolerated no uneducated minds, among her students. She was fine with it if it showed something of the character in the book.

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