@#$$%$#@: Dealing with Profanity in Student Writing

What happens when the real narratives get a bit too real?  How do you deal with student’s use of realistic language in short stories and creative nonfiction?

Every year, I am met with the unique problem of reading student short stories that include language that would get them in trouble if they were to say these words in the hall or the cafeteria or the library.

At the beginning of the year, I make it clear spoken profanity is inappropriate per the rules of the student handbook, but, in their writing, everything is on the table. All language is at their disposal as a narrative tool as long as those tools—details, scene, character, dialogue or language—serve the purpose of the writing and ultimately the total piece.  In other words, the use of profanity or adult-themed scenes must be used to advance the plot or develop a character or create a tone. If they don’t, those elements must be cut like any other extraneous detail or writerly indulgence.

Recommending a student cut out profanity or sexual scenes is never a moral call, but an artistic one.  The use of profanity often exhibits a lack of vocabulary or a lack of technical skill, and the student’s purpose has nothing to do with art.  The purpose is to merely shock their teacher and awe their peers.

I have this conversation every single year. Every year, I have two or three freshman students who are completely intoxicated by the freedom to swear in their writing.  From what I gather, students are reacting to the zero tolerance policy for profanity. Some of their thrill in using these words is in rebellion of what they perceived as a fascist and arbitrary rule.

Last year, a student used 31 expletives in his screenplay as well as numerous sexual references, which I allowed to remain when we workshopped the piece.  His protagonist and the protagonist’s friends were 14-year-old males, and I gave him a bit of latitude with that language because he was attempting to characterize their innocent-trying-to-be-tough bravado which is present in almost all adolescent males.

And predictably, the class called him out in workshop, not on the basis that they were offended by the language, but that he was trying to characterize his protagonist only by his use of cursing.  The protagonist was one dimensional, flat, and underdeveloped, they said.  In his revised short story, he used one mild profanity and developed the character’s complexity through action and precise dialogue, and the piece was much stronger.

Another student turned in a poem written almost entirely with curse words. The poem was supposed to be some sort of social, political or cultural manifesto. Again, the class felt like the poem lacked sophistication and subtly from a craft standpoint, showcasing only a knee-jerk and almost clichéd reaction to American foreign and domestic policy, but the poet said he wanted to express anger, and he chose those words to do that. Again the class responded.  This time, they were willing to concede to a few of these words were necessary, but they questioned the lack of fresh images to carry the meaning of the poem.

Profanity is a fact of life in all high school classrooms.  Having a real conversation about these words, about the political and moral power of language, and even about the etymology of curse words is a standard-sweeping lesson in itself.


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  • Tim


    I'm curious, etymologically, do you cover or introduce or review various four-letter words? As acronyms? As historical gutteral slang? As by-products of cultural conquest? What is your standard approach? Please exemplify, if you'd like….


    • Anna J. Small Roseboro

      The Place of Profanity on ELA Class

      Have I introduced appropriate use of profanity in my classes?  Yes, I ask students not to use profanity out loud, but do allow it in their writing, especially when writing dialogue that would seem inauthentic if the characters only spoke Standard English".  However, because my students know that I am personally offended by such language, they refrain from using profanity in their speech. When they slip, they apologize. Most notice that when reading aloud from written work that they have in front of them that I skip such words, and smile.  They understand and tend to do the same when they read aloud.

      In another context, however, when teaching connotations, and the power of sound to create a mood, and we are talking about dental and labial sounds and ways they can

      suggest anger, fear, vielence, I draw students' attention to the number of profane words that begin with such sounds.  They get the message. 

      • LizPrather

        Power of sounds


        I love this idea of listening to the power of sound as it creates tone in a piece.  I also like to couple that lesson in tonal awareness with an explanation of the historical usage of a word. We always have a “why are some words considered vulgar and others not?” conversation around this time too.    Saying these words out loud iin the classroom, even if they are embedded in a text,  is a personal/classroom/community call.  Some classes are more mature than others; some communities would be more understanding of the discussion than others. 

  • Nicole

    Do you read them aloud?
    What are your thoughts, then, on reading those pieces aloud? Do you say the words in front of your students?

    • LizPrather

      On saying profanity out loud in text


      Yes, I do, but that’s a personal/classroom/community call for each teacher to make.  For example, Tobias Wolff has a fabulous short story called “Bullet in the Brain,” which is about a bank holdup.  It’s an exceptional piece of writing, and I use it to teach narrative framing and POV.  Predictably, there is some profane language, but students rarely notice it. It’s seamless and appropriate for the characterization of the robbers.  It’s a short piece, and I usually read it out loud to students, so they can hear how the syntax and diction work together effortlessly. 

  • LizPrather

    Vocabulary Quiz

    Yes! I have addressed the socio- and pyscho-linguistic power/weight of certain words when we discuss connotation/denotation/red flag words in relation to rhetoric, and we also discuss why euphemisms were historically necessary for death, sex, bodily functions. It’s interesting in relation to the CCSS because curse words are great examples of “usage” that can change over time and are sometimes contested. 

  • John

    Surprise . . .

    I amazed experienced teachers would believe, "the use of profanity or adult-themed scenes must be used to advance the plot or develop a character or create a tone."  You allow them to read profanity, write profanity, smile about it coyly, then don't expect them to fling it around verbally at will?  It's awful that education has degenerated to this.

    How many awesome writers don't have to resort to the vulgar and profane?  How much better would you be as a teacher if you taught our CHILDREN to express themselves clearly in language acceptable by anyone?  Profanity does not improve writing!  Did you ever walk out of a movie or read a book, close it and say, "That would have been so much better if there had been more f– words??"

    I am disgusted that adults are doing this in the classroom under the guise of ELA "education."

  • LizPrather

    Adding to the Conversation

    Dear John, 

              Thanks for your passionate thoughts. The excised sentence that you quote “the use of profanity or adult-themed scenes must be used to advance the plot or develop a character or create a tone” is not a requirement of my writing assignments.  The sentence means:   if a student uses profanity in writing, he/she can’t use it to offend, gross out or shock and awe his audience for gratuitous purposes, but should use it only in the service of the piece, such as developing a character.   

              You may have missed this sentence: “The use of profanity often exhibits a lack of vocabulary or a lack of technical skill, and the student’s purpose has nothing to do with art.” 

              Perhaps I should also make clear that I’m referring to narrative writing, not argumentative or expository.  With non-fictional texts, I emphasize that diction is critically dependent on the rhetorical situation, including purpose and audience.  Obviously, one would not use profanity when writing a political speech to the general public, but politicians from Abraham Lincoln to our POTUS have been known to use colorful language in private.  This is a great lesson for students to understand the difference between public/personal audiences.

              I am not advocating the use of profanity in student writing or in any writing. I am advocating that students write clearly with precise language, and that if they use a curse word, they need to be able to defend its utility in relation to its purpose in the larger text.  

              When we have classroom discussions about profanity in writing, I do expect students to discuss its usage in appropriate, mature ways.  It’s not an invitation to “fling it around verbally at will” any more than a discussion of Hitler is an invitation to incite racial prejudice.

              Thank you for the opportunity to clarify my post! 

  • robert beckvall

    time enough for cuss words & sex

    freedom and test driving this new idea that being an adult is tied up in cussing and the ability to now have sex is meaningless withour character, even in the not fully formed teen-age mind.  there will be plenty of time to cuss and talk of sexual tension as a high schooler and young adult.  for now, in their talk and written word, let us find their artistic merit without the cursing and unknown sex acts they are now dreaming of.  if character is implanted, then the cuss will mean something important, and the sex real or imagined will have character and class, even if doing or yelling the "f" word with our beloved or a near stranger:  teach them character first

  • sca.een

    Quite an interesting idea.

    Quite an interesting idea. Surely, without real-life experience education does become artificial, students will be like plants from a greenhouse thrown out into the wild. Of course, in most cases students are able to protect themselves. Still, if we educators do try to make the outside world as pretty as possible who knows whetehr or not they won’t become those plants. That’s why I (as person who though hasn’t got much of educator’s experience but I did research a lot for http://acewriters.org/write-my-thesis.html on education and stuff) find teaching stuff students (might) face in their life would help them make the right choice.

  • RubyRidenour

    Freedom of speech or just disgusting manners ?

    All we know that we live in a freedom country and our rights allow us to speech and expressed how I would like. But where is the line of all this, is not behavioral norms should stop us before saying obscenities and a variety of dirty tricks. Writing essays is very laborious and difficult task. Not all people get to do this efficiently and quickly, especially when the time to write a good essay, not at all(ratings of writing services). It has never let me down. If something goes wrong – it’s better to consult a specialist.

  • LukeNash

    Seek the source

    First, you have to deal with profanity in the house, TV, Internet, street, etc. That’s where it came from in the first place. It’s strikingly common for boys to be interested in sexual terms.