How to style profanity in your prose

Deciding if you’re going to drop a profane or obscene word in your copy is one thing. Determining how to present that word is quite another. Here are some tips.

Some time ago, I wrote about the suitability of profanity in prose. My conclusion was that, depending on the context, it’s up to the producer to decide whether to publish profanity and the reader whether to accept or reject it. But if you, the producer, decide to allow profanity, know that there are degrees of deployment.

The simplest approach, of course, is to treat profane and obscene words and phrases just like any other. As I mentioned earlier, many people (myself included) find humor in judiciously employed cussing intended to evoke amusement, and nothing beats a string of expletives to convey passion of one kind or another.

Understandably, however, this acceptance is not universal, and publishers must be sensitive to their readership. General-interest magazines and websites and the like, especially those with paid subscriptions and/or with a reputation to establish or uphold, are unlikely to allow such terms to parade across the page or the screen like rowdy revelers.

Publications with niche audiences consisting of people who unabashedly use profanity in speech and writing, and hear it without flinching, are going to have a more relaxed attitude about provocative language. But what if yours doesn’t belong in that category? You and your writers can refrain from including profanity in your narrative, but what about reporting what another party wrote or said when the statement includes naughty words?

In lighthearted contexts, writers and editors can bowdlerize comments with euphemistically droll descriptions along the lines of “Smith suggested that Jones engage in an anatomically impossible activity” or “She spoke, to say the least, in a manner inconsistent with what one would expect of a person standing among blue-haired ladies in the lobby of a church immediately after the service.”

Coy references to utterances of “expletives” or “invective,” or to “colorful language,” also get the point across.

But if one would rather tiptoe closer to verisimilitude, one might print a word with a non-alphabetical character in place of one or more letters, as many people do to circumvent profanity filters in the commenting function on websites. (“Sh!t,” for example, provides an orthographical fig leaf and additional emphasis in one stroke.)

Some publications have a more restrictive policy: Print the first letter only, followed by a dash (or two hyphens) or a couple of asterisks: s–, or s**. (The paired characters collectively represent, rather than correspond one to one to, the missing letters.)

One might also employ what has been variously labeled a “grawlix” (the term was coined, among other similarly jocular vocabulary, by comics cartoonist Mort Walker) and an “obscenicon” (the creation of Language Log blogger Benjamin Zimmer).

However, an ostentatious representation like @#&*!—this approach is said to have been invented by Rudolph Dirks, the creator of the pioneering comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids—is best reserved solely for humorous use; alternatively, in a feature article or a column, a writer might simply refer to an F-bomb or the S-word rather than apply the news section’s substitution policy.

Another necessary component of a publication’s rules about the use of profanity and obscenity is a word list that explicitly draws the line: Which words (like mild oaths) are acceptable in print, and which (sexual and scatological terms, for example) are not?

A version of this article first appeared on

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