To Cuss or Not To Cuss, Guest Post by Mary Sisson

In Defense of Cussing . . . at least some of the time

Cussing, like porn or musical theater, divides people: Some people love it, others can’t stand it.

I know this well because my father was very much in the first group, while my mother was strongly in the second. The result was that I had one parent who taught me rousing songs about masturbation, and another parent who banned words like “jeez” and “golly.” (Theirs was an interesting union.)

When the time came to write my science-fiction novel Trang, I was faced with the question of whether or not to have some of my characters use profanity. Some background: The book’s titular character, Philippe Trang, is a diplomat—Earth’s first diplomat to aliens, in fact. He is chosen for the job because he is, by nature, very diplomatic, considerate of other people’s feelings and careful not to offend them.

Philippe Trang does not use profanity.

For this mission, he is provided with guards. Philippe Trang expects this; but he does not expect his guards to be, in essence, the Navy SEAL Team Six of the future.

His guards are not peacekeepers; they are warriors. They kill people. That’s what they’ve trained for, and that’s what they’re good at.

They’re not so good at being diplomatic.

So, that was the premise: Kindly diplomat meets crude soldiers. The question became, just how crude should the soldiers be?

I’ll cut to the chase and say that I went with very crude indeed. Hard profanity. Vulgar language. My mother has not read the book, and furthermore, she’s not going to.

Why would I write a book my own mother can’t read? Why would I write something that requires me to stick a language advisory in the book description? Why would I do something that I know will strongly turn off some readers? Especially since I’m writing in a genre that turns off plenty of readers all on its own?

For me it boiled down to a question of verisimilitude. I used to be a reporter, and one big complaint about covering the military is that you can’t just massage what soldiers say so that it can be published in a family publication—you basically have to translate their words from Obscenity into English. Whenever I feel like I have gone too far, I just crack open Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead and that feeling goes right away.

There is also the issue of emotional verisimilitude. Since I enjoy science fiction (well, some science fiction), I’ve watched some of Farscape and all of the new Battlestar Galactica. Which means that I’ve been driven crazy by their fake cuss words, “frell” and “frack.”

Those shows taught me that if you are going to convince anyone that your characters are tough and mean, your characters need to use words that are tough and mean. “Frell” sounds like a word one might use to describe an especially pleasant day. When one character tells another to “frell off,” they don’t sound remotely angry. “Frack” at least has those hard consonant sounds, but honestly—why not just have your tough fighter-pilot character go with “fudge” and complete her imitation of a kindergarten teacher?

Perhaps I am like my mother in this regard: Her opposition to “jeez” and “golly” was that they were weasel words, dishonest substitutes for harder swears. I feel like you should either use the actual profanity or figure out a completely different way to say something.

This is especially true when someone is supposed to be saying something that is offensive, inappropriate, and shocking. “Motherfracker” is none of those things; it’s just silly. Even when writers aren’t using made-up cuss words, straight substitutions never work. “Gosh-darn it, I’m frigging tired of this crap,” does not pack much in the way of shock value.

And I needed these soldiers to shock.

Philippe Trang is, as you might expect, the heart of Trang. He’s not a perfect guy: He can be waspish and a bit of a snob, plus he’s dealing with some pretty horrible trauma that doesn’t always bring out the best in him.

But his job matters to him—he is absolutely convinced that diplomacy is very, very valuable. And it was vital to the book to have the reader on his side, to have the reader convinced that diplomacy is indeed very, very valuable, and that Philippe Trang is the guy to handle this delicate and important diplomatic mission.

What better way to do that than to force him, right off the bat, to handle a pack of cuss-o-holics? The reader might not know much about diplomacy, but they’ll certainly understand that accusing a new acquaintance of engaging in sexual relations with animals is an unwise approach, and they’ll sympathize with Philippe Trang’s efforts to get it to stop. The cultural barriers between this diplomat and his guards are emblematic of the cultural barriers between the humans and the aliens—which of course are emblematic of the cultural differences that separate people from each other out here in the real world. It is important that they be overcome.

--Mary Sisson is an award-winning writer and the author of Trang, as well as its sequel Trust, which will be coming out this June. And has a language advisory.

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  1. This is such a great post because its something I think about quite a lot. I'm not a cusser and when I hear cusswords I tend to cringe. But I think that's mostly cause I have little kids and I have ingrained into my own brain not to cuss. But when it comes to books I'm in the middle. I don't like the F word in YA, at lease not excessively, and am okay with a few cuss words occassionally if it fits.
    For adult books some is fine and if it fits the story. But if the characters use words excessively and it just doesn't seem neccassary then I don't love it. But if its adult I can overlook it.

    I'm writing a story I don't think my mom should read, how do you get away with that? I'll have to use a pen name and not tell ANYONE I'm published. Not sure I can do that....

  2. Great post! I'm currently writing my second book which is way more adult than my first lol. I dont use excessive curssing but i do use some because hey, I curse sometimes big deal lol My parents won't reading the second book because of sexuality not cussing lol

  3. Glad you guys liked it!

    I'm funny because if I feel like language/sexuality/violence is just there because someone is trying to be shocking, it really does offend me (and I would never put cussing into a YA book--I just think that's inappropriate). But if it's integral to the story, I'm fine with it--even if the material itself is much harder. I don't think I'm the only one like that: I've had people tell me, "I probably won't like your book because of the language," and then when they read it, they don't mind it at all.

    Candace, my Mom knows I wrote the book and the kind of book it is, she just chooses not to read it (she's not a big reader anyway).

  4. Candace, I agree with you. I don't cuss a lot either but I don't mind it in a book as long as it's relevant to the story line. I feel like sometimes it's put into books for the shock value.

    Janiera, I think some cussing in books is fine as long as it's not every other word. Most people cuss anyway. I recently read a book where every other word (or so it seemed) was a cuss word. Even though the story was good that aspect was a turn off for me. I think there is a happy middle ground somewhere.

  5. Mary,
    Thanks for writing this guest post. I think it's a great topic.

  6. Fantastic post on cursing!

    I'm thinking of one day writing something on this subject, but about YA books. Like with soldiers, many teenagers curse a lot, so there's this entire "should I be more realistic, or tasteful" argument that has to be considered.

    My own opinion leans toward "less is better", but I use certain words at certain times in my writing for the sake of impact. For example, I only use the s-word once or twice in my current book, while I'm saving the f-word for the last book of the series.

    I don't curse at all (probably just one level up from your mom), but I'm undaunted by such language, since I hang out with various crowds that aren't afraid to curse or make sexual jokes and such.


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