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Swearing in YA Novels – Yay or Nay?

A large number of YA novels these days will feature swearing of some kind; some manage to tell the tale without any swearing. We got to wondering what people thought about swearing in YA novels and asked Twitter this question: “Swearing in YA Novels – Yay or Nay?” Here are the replies:

– “Within reason and in moderation, it’s probably acceptable in context.” – @pyroriffic

– “Hells yeah.” – @cat_clarke

– “As long as it’s narratively justified, I don’t have an issue with it. Also depends on the ages of the target audience of course.” – @voxael

– “Fine with an ass or a bastard. Maybe a shit. *Maybe* a fuck (but only if used really sparingly, for serious anger etc.) No C word.” – @jpsmythe

– “Depends on the character. Like it or not, a lot of kids swear. Swearing in books is realistic, and not especially offensive.” – @MrSamStrong

– “Yay. But only where (a) in character and (b) warranted by the gravity of events. Every five minutes? Nay.” – @thefuturefire

– “Find me a 14 – 17 year old who doesn’t swear when they think their parents aren’t listening & then I’ll say it’s unacceptable…” – @LouMorgan

– “Have to reply to this. I have teens, their friends are always here & cuss words DO happen. I think a little swearing is okay in YA” – @AERought

– “Yes, as long as it’s not gratuitous. There’s a line between sweary verisimilitude (“oh, but kids swear!”) and literary merit. While I’m quite fond of swearing in and of itself, I like to think it has to have purpose in order to be effective.” – @mygoditsraining

– “Same w/adult novels. If it fits the story, yay. Tons of teenagers swear. Ridiculous to think they need to be protected from that.” – @corinneduyvis

We would be really interested in hearing your perspective! Drop us a comment with your reply.

Comments

E.Maree

I’m definitely pro-swearing in YA, it’s authentic and you can show a nice bit of a character’s personality in how they swear (only when out of their parent’s earshot? In front of their siblings? Aggressively, wielding it like a weapon? Creatively, combining on a whim?).

There are a few situations where it needs to be wielded carefully, though – I’ll dislike a character that shows strong homophobia or misogyny when they swear, but I’m fine with that if the author is deliberately trying to show this character has issues and prejudices.

Louisa

It’s fine by me! If you can find a better way of saying what you want to say, then all’s good. But sometimes only an expletive will do! Of course, if swearing is all your characters are good at, then that could get pretty boring pretty quickly.

Michelle McLean

I think sometimes it’s necessary. If you have a coarse character, or an upset teen, or a tense situation, then it sounds unauthentic to say “oh fiddlesticks”. I don’t necessarily like it when it’s used for shock value or if there’s no real purpose to it, but most of the time, when I’ve seen it used (or used it myself) it’s because the character and situation call for it.

Let’s face it – people, especially teens, swear. And trying too hard to avoid that can make the story suffer.

suzanna

I am not a fan of swearing. I dont’ swear much myself but in the name of authenticity, swearing in YA books must be included … and that’s fine so long as it’s not all the time.
I think it helps to build individual voices for characters and is expected by the audience.
So unless your story is about two spinster aunts taking afternoon tea, how can you expect to write dialogue between people (especially teens) without including the occasional expletive?

Amanda

I work with teenagers, and it’s hilarious to see them try to censor their naturally occurring cusswords when they’re talking to me (doubly so when, little do they know, I’m doing the same thing). If I slip up and go, “Dammit” or “That sucks” they’re only shocked that we know the same words. :)

I’m of the school of thought that non-abusive swearing is innocuous, especially compared to portrayals of violence and sadism. But if the violence and sex are being toned down from adult fiction levels, as they are in the YA I’ve experienced, then the cussing should probably be tailored to match. I do think it needs to have some presence, because otherwise it’s… well, it’s treating them like little kids, not like young adults.

Heather @ Buried in Books

It would be like talking down to teens if you didn’t have swearing in books written for them. I live with teens and yeah, they try to get away with it even in front of me when they know the rules. So, yes, you should have it if it fits in your story and where it fits in your story.

Heather

Alex F. Fayle

I’m definitely one of those who feel “if it fits the context” readers.

Nonny

Considering how dark some YA novels are these days, I often find it unrealistic when authors go out of their way not to swear in a book that contains a lot of violence and dark themes. Cause, I know I swore a lot more as a teen than I do as an adult, and it’s not like I don’t still have a sailor’s mouth. ;)

PaulNYC

I’m all for people speaking the way they do in real life reflected in fiction. As a person who is not a member of the Get-Me-My-Smelling-Salts Association, it’s really not that big a deal.

Ros

Occasionally you can get away with “she swore viciously” or some such, or a creative insult rather than the usual four-letter words. I think whether it’s acceptable is a matter of degree. Part of the art of writing well is making the dialogue sound realistic, but that’s never the same as the way people talk in real life anyway. For one thing, we put in far more pauses and filler words than you see in fiction.

The thing is, we want our YA characters to be smarter, braver and better than in real life, and too much swearing makes them look dull and unimaginative. I’m not particularly offended by it, but I think authors should try to cut it down, as long as it doesn’t mean butchering the dialogue.

J. M. Cooper

Just as a good writer omits almost all of the well, okay, like, oh, and other speech markers that we all use in “real life”, I think good writers can discern when swearing is appropriate and when it’s not. Of course teenagers swear. They also have sex and smoke and get in trouble. I don’t think anyone can deny these things have a place in fiction. But we aren’t writing a story so that readers get a mirror image of teen-life. It’s art. Discernment is huge.

Terry Danley

This is tough, because our culture has become more coarse than ever, and for an increasing number of people, particularly under the age of 40, scant notice is paid to profanity. My observation also is that so many are completely unaware that they use the words as frequently as they do. When asked about it, particularly when uber-foul language has been used in a most inappropriate setting, so many will argue up and down that they didn’t say what everyone heard them say.

I personally would like to see authors be far more judicious in the contexts in which they select profane words. It’s certain that much of what is written in books and screenplays is gratuitous or, worse, thoughtless and lazy. I believe that in this matter less may be more, as far as creating a desired effect, and it actually requires an author to perfect his craft rather than just tossing out an F-bomb for filler material in a sentence.

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