Four Letter Words in YA

$h!t happens in real life, but should it in literature geared toward younger readers?  I've thought a lot about the use of swear words in YA, and it seemed like a logical finale to my impromptu four letter word week here on the OV.  (You can view posts one and two if you'd like, but be warned neither of them have anything to do with cursing. :0)

This isn't a new topic of debate by any means.  Opinions on the subject are all over the place on whether it is acceptable for your characters to drop an F-bomb, or if they should stick to the King's English.   From the highly unscientific research I've performed (the Google), I'd say the general consensus is that it's okay, so long as it is character or situationally appropriate.

Here's the thing: For some real-life folks, it's always situationally appropriate to DAMN! the dog.  (So to speak.)  Furthermore, for some folks it's never okay to say things you wouldn't say to momma or Jesus.  Would it be okay then, to have potty-mouthed Uncle Mort be a main character and shout an expletive in every other scene?  It's what Mort would do, after all.

Here's an excellent post on the subject I found over at  More recently, YA author Kirsten Hubbard discussed the subtle art of Cuss-cromancy.  She thinks that, like every other word you choose to include in a story, curse words should be heavily judged to see if they serve a purpose.  If they aren't moving the story or provide some sort of essential color, they should be removed.  In other words, unlike in real life, Kirsten thinks there should be no casual cursing in writing.

As for me, I tend to fall in line with Kirsten.  I think anything overused in a novel runs the risk of becoming gimmicky and distracting to the reader.  However, I also think if you try to filter too much--or underuse with a purpose--the writing can become stale or unrealistic.  I'd also advocate for finding more creative ways to express curse words, as opposed to omission, in books for middle grade readers.  The movies The Fantastic Mr. Fox (the main character says, "cuss" in place of expletives) and A Christmas Story (dad says a string of nearly unintelligible words in place of expletives) come to mind.

I'll leave you with a few questions to further the debate:

Is there an age cutoff as it pertains to readers/target audience and cursing?  Should there be, considering YA and middle grade books are commonly mingled in school libraries?  Do we need a rating system for books (similar to movies) that would guide readers, parents, etc. ?  

I'll also say a quick thank you to all of the new followers AND for all of the awesome comments on the last couple of posts.  Even if you don't read the nonsense I spew, you should read the comments and thoughts of the readers.  Great stuff!  

Have an awesome Super Sunday!



  1. What you've posted here is pretty much my philosophy about cussing.

  2. I have thought about this too.

    For me, the "He cursed under his breath" line can work pretty well in YA.

    Still, there is one place in my original draft where one character lets loose with the F-word.

    I was about as shocked that he used it as the character he used it on.

    Which is why, if that scene makes it to the rewrite, I would seriously consider to write that dialogue line for line...


  3. I like that idea Misha except in cases where less equals more. Sometimes the impact of that single F word is like a hammer to the brain. (Much like the one you used in you WIP; if it impacted you that way, chances are your readers would feel the same.)

  4. Hmm . . . I too have thought a lot about this. When I first started writing YA, I would purposefully shy away from four-letter words, not wanting to offend any of my potential readers. Not so much anymore. Now I look at my characters’ situations, settings, scenes, and emotions then use whatever word seems most appropriate. If that happens to be a four-letter word, then so be it.

    I also think we need to keep in mind that YA Lit. spans a huge age range – 14 to upwards of 20. That is a massive difference in not only maturity level, but also in content. I find that many YA writers are now targeting their manuscripts to fit within a certain age-range -- older YA vs. younger, cleaner YA.

    But you are absolutely right, E.J. – any four-letter word you use needs to be situationally appropriate!

  5. That's a great point about the age range, Trish. That's one of the things that made me ponder the need for a ratings system.

    Thanks for stopping by, as always!

  6. The one young adult book I pitched at a conference got some strange criticism about how teens wouldn't like my story. So, I put it on the back burner and decided to grow it into an old person's novel at some point.Therefore, I cannot say I have any experience on this subject. I will say, that I personally would not have enjoyed the F-bomb because I knew it was a bad word. Great post.

  7. Good post. So glad you mentioned the Fantastic Mr Fox because I marveled at how cleverly they'd done it when I saw it.
    I agree with the posters who mention age. I think it can be appropriate for an older YA book, but at the same time I really notice it in print in YA books, no matter the targeted age and themes. Like any words, four letter bombs can be overused into meaninglessness.

  8. My opinion, YA lit should be rated. Not only are there curse words but explicit sex scenes. Ever read the House of Night Series?

  9. I think as long as it is not over done it's fine. If you can keep it clean, than of course try to. Also, a character can interupt another character before the words are actually spoken so the readers get the hint, but it's not in their face.
    "What the--" is an example. With that said, I feel like it's only apporpriate to use four letter words in dialog in YA.

  10. I think it's fine occasionally in YA, I mean, teenagers swear, why deny it? But I think it's a fun writerly thing to make up swear words, especially in anything speculative or for younger readers. In Artemis Fowl the fairies say 'D'Arvit' all the time :) Having said that, the Fantastic Mr Fox film annoyed the hell out of me with all the 'cuss this' and'cuss that', I think mostly because it was repeated so often. As for me, my characters do a lot of 'he kicked the door and swore' kind of thing, which i like because it sounds natural to me.

  11. That's an interesting question you present. As my writing is for a different audience it's not something I have to take into as much consideration. I do, however, use more poor language than I probably should both in speaking and writing and it's something I'm working on. :) Swears should have real stakes attached when used or else they'll lose their meaning.

  12. Hello crusader!

    I write YA and the idea of writing "gosh darnit" just doesn't work for me. If my character has a potty mouth, then I write what they would say. There are a few choice words I refuse to use (just because I'm a prude that way, I guess), but if my character needs to swear, to just let it out, then I do it--if it further's my characters character (boy that sounded stupid, but I hope you know what I meant).

    Anyway, I'll follow you anywhere, except dark cold places, and places way up high :)

  13. I'm ORIGINALLY from a small town. I never heard a girl drop the F-bomb until I was 22. She about peed her pants laughing when she saw how shocked I was.

    Obviously, my stand on four-letter words is A LOT different from everyone elses. Where I'm from people just DON'T talk like that. So to put it in my writing...yeah, that still feels uncomfortable.

    Are there situations in my MS where four-letter words are used? Yes. But I think I can count them on one hand and they all start with S, H, or D.

    And Shelly, I'm with you 100 percent. Movies have ratings, books should too. I'm not going to take my five-year-old to a Rated R movie or let him watch PG-13 without seeing it first. I wonder if there is a coalition out there somewhere for that very thing...

  14. Hi EJ (from a fellow crusader!)

    I dabble in water-colours and I can tell you that if I painted every brick when painting a house the result would, frankly look awful. The way to paint brickwork is to get the colour and shading right and you suggest a few bricks here and there. The same is true of swearing. The rough, aggressive, frightened or threatening way a person speaks is suggestive of swearing and you just need to drop a very few in - even the suggestion of a few and no-one is in any doubt about the fact that the character swears.

    There is a problem with saying "he burnt his hand on the stove and swore" in that it is showing not telling. You can't win sometimes!

    I do agree with Girl Friday that writing fantasy gives a real advantage (although not entirely exclusive to fantasy and scifi). My favourite fantasy curse is "dog-rotted" (c) ;P One of the most imaginative suite of curse words that fitted with the world that had been built that I can think of is Mordant's Need by Stephen R. Donaldson

  15. My work's geared towards an adult audience, and leans towards the violent side of things, but...

    I'll use cursing in moderation, where it's appropriate.

  16. Hi fellow crusader. Cursing is okay in older YA, but for the MG level of YA, it's frowned upon. I've heard it from editors.

  17. When I write YA, I write for who I was at 16- a girl who had never uttered a curse word in her life. But that wasn't the norm 13 years ago, and it's not the norm now.

    I think it depends on the book, the subject, the audience.

    I think as authors, we also have to be prepared for the possible consequences of what we write. Whether ppl will say our work is too childish or too mature.

    I really wish they'd rate books. It would reduce banning books. Because a major argument by would-be bann-ers is that books with 'content' or 'language' shouldn't be where their innocent kids could see it. If a book has 'SOME LANGUAGE' stamped on it, then that argument goes out the window.

  18. i read a book recently where the main characters cussed and cussed and CUSSED and god, it was so annoying--it seemed to be just there, you know, not really serving any purpose?
    so for me, it HAS to fit in with the character to be there. im not against it, i just dont like it being there for the sake of being there.


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