Swear Words Can Ruin a Good Book

swear words
Call me old-fashioned, but what happened to the genre of YA fiction where the main character can negotiate her way through trials and tribulations without dropping the F-bomb or wallowing through piles of potty language? I know, I know, I sound like an uninformed prude who doesn’t realize that ‘the world’ talks that way.

I beg to differ. Foul language only becomes acceptable when we accept it. Case in point—we ask our students not to curse or swear or talk like an R-rated movie at school (I once confused a first grader for a construction worker before I rounded the corner and realized who had spoken. Upon seeing me, the child voluntarily apologized). Some times they slip up (after all they hear cursing everywhere they turn—at home, in the theatre, on television, in video games and the music they listen to). But guess what? They respect the standard because we show them respect. Do they mess up? Occasionally.

Foul language only becomes acceptable when we accept it Click To Tweet

But back to cursing in YA literature. In my all-time favorite book, Harper Lee’s main character uses a few mild expletives in order to help the reader understand a phase Scout happened to be going through. The words fit the character and the situation, and the adults in the book help her understand that polite society doesn’t accept her language.

Maybe my real lament lies in the fact that society seems to have lost the ‘polite.’ Why does pushing the envelope have to turn into the norm? Perhaps authors and editors have chosen to dumb down the language and include potty words because they fear that today’s young adults won’t know what ‘expletive’ or ‘ribald’ mean. Something sacred is lost when nothing is left to the imagination (this goes for sex scenes in movies as well).

Something sacred is lost when nothing is left to the imagination. Click To Tweet

I recently read a beautiful YA book that I’d love to use in my classroom. Elisa Wass crafted The Cresswell Plot to almost perfection. Castella Rachel Cresswell lives a weird life—but she doesn’t understand just how strange it is until a classmate befriends her and she starts to understand ‘normal.’

As she starts to compare what her father has told her with what she observes around her, it seems that she has more questions than answers. What really happened to injure her mother? Do normal families isolate themselves in the same way? Does everyone have a charismatic father who confuses himself with God?

The Cresswell Plot kept me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. Wass does a brilliant job of climbing inside the mind of someone who is so confused about ‘normal’ that even the reader at times wonders if the main character might be imagining everything. But she’s not, and if she can’t convince her siblings that they need to take action, events might press towards a finale that will be all too final.

I loved the book, I really did. But I have a problem with the cursing. I’m very careful with adopting books for my English classes that have gratuitous swear words in them (the F-bomb is used 25 times—which makes it more like a war zone—and ‘s**t’ is used 14 times). If a character has not grown up using or hearing curse words, believe me, it’s out of character when they adopt expletives as part of their vocabulary. Once would have made the point.

While I have read other books out loud with my students (guided reading) that have curse words, I feel that the swearing in The Cresswell Plot does not advance the plot or develop the character—thus classifying it as gratuitous. As a side note, before reading The Glass Castle to my upper-division English students, I ask them if they are comfortable with me reading those words out loud or if they would prefer me to substitute them with less offensive words. Each year they vote for the ‘vegetarian version’—which goes to show that kids don’t ‘need’ cursing to enjoy a book.

The book has a beautiful message that my students so need to hear—just because one lives with abuse does not mean that it’s normal or ok. My students live with abuse, and they don’t know it’s not normal (especially the girls). This book would be a wonderful discussion starter because it parallels their lives in so many ways, yet at the same time it is NOT their story (which might act as a trigger).

This conundrum makes me wonder whether or not we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In our attempt to present ourselves as ‘hip’ and ‘modern’ and ‘up-to-date’ and ‘appealing to young adults,’ have we forgotten that if the message is good, it doesn’t need dressing up with potty language.

What’s happening in YA literature reminds me of what happens with movie ratings—PG-13 and rated R movies make more money, thus producers will ruin a perfectly good movie with a gratuitous swear word or flash of skin in order to get the ‘racier’ rating.

It’s as if book publishers believe that in order to make a book a YA novel, they must toss in cursing. What makes a book a YA novel as opposed to a middle grade or adult book is that the main character is on a quest for autonomy. Castella Cresswell is such a character—and the stakes are high. The plot, character development, setting and conversation sparkle without the cursing.

What about you? How do you feel about curse words in books (whether they’re meant for young adults or adults)?

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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