Tuesday 12 April 2011


Discussion: Swearing in YA

Recently there was a conversation on Twitter regarding Keris Stainton's next novel, Jessie Hearts NYC. Keris was asked by her Editor to remove most of the swearing in the novel. My inital reaction? Hurrah!

I'm not a fan of swearing in YA. I'm not really a fan of swearing in novels in general, but especially in YA. Keris was saying how she felt the swearing made the book more relalistic because teens do swear, and I'm sure many people agree. But that's exactly why I don't like it. You can hear teens swearing all the time; everyday one can over hear teens talking on the bus where every other word is a swear word. I don't want it in my books as well.

This may sound like I'm having a dig at Keris, but I'm not. I've read Della Says: "OMG!", and yes, there was swearing, and I did wince at some characters' choice of words, but in fairness, it wasn't overly sweary. I could get past it and move on. It didn't spoil the story for me, and I really enjoyed it. However, I have read books where the swearing is to such a degree that it actually stopped me from being able to enjoy it. It was spoiled by the swearing.

On the other hand, swearing in novels may be realistic, but there are YA novels out there that don't have any swearing in them, and still manage to be completely enjoyable. Are these books failing somehow? Are they not realistic enough? If no, if these books are doing a great job at being realising, why bother including swearing in YA at all? Couldn't one argue that if books without strong language are successful, then those with could (possibly) be encouraging teens to swear?

I have to say if I ever read a YA novel that includes a particular swear word - one that is famously known to offend many people - it's going to have to be an EXTREMELY brilliant book to not receive a very negative review from me. There is just no need for such extremely bad language, no matter how realistic. Fortunately I've never come across one.

EDIT: From reading the comments people have posted, it seems either I've not been clear enough, or some people have misunderstood what I meant, so I thought I would clarify.

Yes, there are much more important issues in novels. This post is not about me complaining or wanting to get rid of strong language completely. It's just my personal preference. And most of the novels I do read contain swearing - I never complain about this in reviews unless it's excessive, I pretty much over look it - and will continue to read novels with swearing in. It was just to see what people thought of swearing in YA generally.

Also, I wasn't asking if YA with swearing is the main cause of teens swearing, I didn't make that clear. Yes, there is swearing in movies, and TV, and even music, and it's inevitable that teens will come across it. It's just, in my opinion, reading is a more personal experience that watching or listening to the others; it's difficult for more than one person to read the same copy of a book at the exact same time, where as the other activites can be done with a number of people. So, my question was, as it's such a personal experience, the author reaching this one person through this one book at that particular time, couldn't someone say the language could encourage this one person to swear? I actually don't think so myself, I was just playing devil's advocate. END EDIT.

But that's just my thoughts. What do you think? Check out Raimy's blog Readaraptor this weekend to read a pro-swearing post!


  1. Great post! I've asked myself this question too, and my conclusion is that swearing can add to the authenticity of a book IF it's done tastefully. Being a teen in high school, I see swearing as an ingrained aspect that won't be going away anytime soon. So while I don't think cursing in novels really inflates the problem, subtlety and moderation is definitely necessary. Overall, I tend to forget what books really have cursing in them because when done properly, its just natural. And as for when cursing should be used, I think it really comes down to the content and author's intent in developing the voice/atmosphere, etc.

  2. I'm glad you liked the post, Jenn! I think I can agree with you - I do read more YA with swearing than without, and the language doesn't even get a mention in my review. There are words I tend not to notice, but there are others that stick out like a sore thumb. The without those words but with the others tend to be the books I wouldn't automatically think of as sweary books.

  3. I don't like books with excessive swearing in. Less is definitely more, and I think writers need to consider carefully whether the word needs to be there, if it adds to the telling of the story or not.

  4. I agree with both sides of this issue to a certain extent. I hate swearing. I think it shows a lack of imagination and self-control, and it sets a bad example. I almost never swear myself. But... the characters in my stories occasionally do. Why? Because that's just something that the character would say. It's realistic. Lots of people swear.

    As to whether swearing in books influences teens to swear, I would guess not. Or at least, not significantly. I would first point a finger at television, radio, parents, friends, the guy on the bus, and every other person around.

    Thought-provoking post, thanks for sharing!

  5. Great post Jo!
    Please don't read my book!
    I fear you may 'tut' and shake your head at me in a disapproving way!

    I do agree though, I too hardly ever swear and think swearing for the sake of it is obviously unnecessary, but at the same time, when you really want to capture an honest slice of life, it's hard NOT to include it! In some instances, when I read a swearless book, it can really pull me out of the moment, especially if there's a huge fight and the characters are like 'I poo-poo you! You nitwit! (but if those wors really are used in any book I WANT to read it!).

    But, having said that, when reading the Harry Potter books I really felt some moments lacked dramatic realism and felt a bit watered down due to lack of colourful teen language. However... if such language were included, I would have been appalled! No one should ever say the 'F' word in Hogwarts!

    I think swearing definitely has its place in YA - but where exactly is that place?

  6. Thanks for this, Jo - it's great to see other people's take on swearing in YA!

    Swearing doesn't particularly bother me, so I'm not turned off a book purely by rude words. However, I don't tend to use a lot of swearing in my own writing (mainly because I don't swear much myself); I save the occasional swear word for times of heightened emotion, as Tom discussed above. That said, I recently saw a review of my latest novel by a teenage reader who said the only thing wrong with it was that the language was a bit formal - nobody swore!

  7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is in my opinion one of the best books out there for children & teens. It contains loads of swear words and doesn't seem to have put too many teachers off sharing it with pupils, libraries stocking it and many parents buying it for their kids.

    Sure some might have objected but it's sold phenomenally well and many consider it a modern children's classic.

    Of course there's always a line and I agree swearing on every page can get a little tiresome. Suppose it's up to the author (and their editor's in Keris' case!).

  8. In general I don't use swearing in my YA writing. But a few words have snuck into one novel. I think it's interesting to note that JK Rowling had Ron swearing in Harry Potter. But she dealt with it as "Ron swore" rather than saying the word.

    I like Kiersten White's take on it too where she has a mermaid that occasionally swears to the MC and the translator turns them into bleeps. Do instead of swearing the MC says bleep.

    But both those examples make a point. The words might not be said directly, but they are still conveying teens swear.

  9. We are talking about Young Adults are we not? Why should there be any difference between a YA book and one for... old adults :).

    I am perfectly fine with swearing in a YA novel if it fits the context and characters, much the same as if there is swearing in a book aimed at older readers.

    I'd be much more concerned about the issues that the books are dealing with i.e. how women/girls are treated/portrayed in the story, what cultural mores are being reinforced(cough "Twilight" cough).

    As for books encouraging teens to swear I think we'd have to consider films and peer interaction before we'd come to books.

  10. Great post Jo,
    Whilst obviously our opinion is different on this topic I can appreciate where you are coming from! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I hope my post this Saturday doesn't offend! x

  11. I have to almost completely disagree! I don't mind swearing in YA at all. I tend to notice more when it's not there. It probably would bother me if I read a book in which there was huge amount of swearing, because sometimes authors can overuse slang and swear words in an attempt to be 'edgy' that doesn't ring true., and if it's used too often, the words use their impact.

    I agree with Sean that I'm more interested in the issues that the books are dealing with and whether the story is realistic and believable, and how women/people from different cultural backgrounds/LGBTQ characters are presented.

  12. Wow! Some great interest while I was away today - have only just had the chance to catch up!

    Thanks to all the authors who stopped by and commented! And the mentions of Harry Potter, I was thinking about those books when I originally drafted my post :)

    I do think that some people have misunderstood my views slightly, so I'm going to edit the post.

  13. A great post. I completely agree.I think it's okay to have the odd swear words in books but if it is overused It just wouldn't do for me.

  14. I've just come across this as my daughter has been reading a couple of books with the 'F' word used repeatedly. She doesn't like to read it, although some of her peers use it, and was upset by it. I sent the books back in to school and initiated a conversation with the deputy head. Whilst I agree that swearing does go on in 'real life' it shouldn't be used so much print especialy in books for 11 year olds. The swearing didn't upset me, but I felt that this type of book should be restricted to older children or, at least the younger child have the choice to read it guided by information on the bookitself. This is my point - if I took my daughter to see a film, there would be guidance as to what could be expected with regard to violence, sexual content and bad laguage, However, on a book there is nothing so how can parents, schools and the children make an informed choice if they are not informed? Maybe publishers should use a similar method of guidance that the film industry have to use. Food for thought....?

  15. I think you make some valid points. I like that you're not for banning the books, but for there to be something of the book so a child/teen can choose not to read the book.

    I hhave to say I do see on some books a "Parental Advisory" badge, or "Warning: Explicit Content", so in some ways that's covered already, but I think they're mostly used for sexual content rather than language - though the book I currently have in front of me has the badge for swearing. Some books do it, it just might be an idea to do it on all books. But then how many books would there be without a badge? I think swearing in YA is pretty common, so books without might be few and far between.