In a Young Adult (>12 y. old) novel, once the obviously bad words (F-word, C-word, N-word, etc.) taken away, how far can rude language go ?

For example, can I use insults like : "Go sit on a rusty nail!", or "Hang yourself.", or "Eat your deads"?
Those contain everyday words, but sounds a bit too violent to me. I wonder if insults basically telling someone to harm or even kill themselves, or to have sex with animals/parents/corpses, even if said with PG vocabulary, are too crude for a YA novel.

Is there a general rule for this ?


5 Answers 5


This isn't a general rule, but perhaps one that might be useful to you. Teachers, like myself, don't really want swearing or explicit sexual references in the texts we teach. Reading them out loud can cause problems even if the language is realistic. (A novel becoming a common school text will mean greater revenue than just appealing to casual YA readers.)

However, insults, etc. are a part of everyday life and have to be written about. Using violent, common words and phrases is fine. Robert Swindells in Stone Cold manages to make his characters, mostly homeless people, sound realistic without using a single 'four-letter word'. Eoin Colfer, in the very popular Artemis Fowl series, made up swear word: 'darvit'. Soap operas before the nine o'clock watershed avoid swearing, but there is plenty of violent language in some of them.

YA novels can be very violent. Think about the Hunger Games series or Maggot Moon which includes a very graphic scene of a teacher kicking a student to death, including things like an eyeball popping out. Teenagers actually like to read about violence.

Glorifying violence can be a problem, but violence per se isn't. Stand in a school for a while and you'll hear a lot worse than what you have suggested above, and novels often exaggerate reality.


There's a whole world of insults out there! From disparaging your opponent's parentage, denigrating their intelligence, making fun of clothing, and saying your opponent is ugly or cowardly--all these are acceptable.

The insults you put forth are fairly tame. If you are worried about violence in them, you must not be writing for an American audience. Successful YA novels are rife with violence. Sex not so much. YA is written for teens. And teens have been exposed to much worse than "go sit on a rusty nail." "Hang yourself" is fairly blunt really. That's not really an insult, that's a suggestion to kill yourself. It really depends on what you want your insults to achieve. "Eat sh*t and die" was a popular one when I was growing up, punctuated by rude gesture, generally as a conversation ender. But prior to that there was a build...

"eat your deads?" I have never heard that one and have no idea what it means...

You can certainly get more creative.

"Maybe if you ate some of that makeup you'd be pretty on the inside." (found that one on the internet).

It also depends on if this is here on earth, or in a created reality (like the Hunger Games). You can create subs for cursing in a created reality. Gorram it! Watch your fracking language!

Also, look to Shakespeare, that guy was pretty darn good at it. It's not hard to go through this list and update it.

  • Thanks for your answer, I'm not looking for ideas or inspiration sources, but for some rule of thumb to know what should be off-limits. I expected things like "Are your parents siblings?" or "Go fist your mom!" to be too "mature" for 12 years olds, and I'd like to kno where to draw the line. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 9:57
  • Clarifications : "Eat your deads." is a translation of "Mange tes morts", which means "Go eat your deceased loved ones/deceased family members" (I think). "She sat on a rusty nail." is an expression I heard in highschool whenever a teenage girl got pregnant "by accident" and "by herself". Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 10:03

My personal rule of thumb is to ask myself would I be comfortable with my daughter saying it when she is 13 years old. Generally I want the dialogue to range from no discomfort at all to a bit of a cringe, so anything you'd hear on the Simpsons. If it sounds like something more is needed, it is the basic "He swore angrily."

That makes it when the character does actually swear, it's a precision F strike that makes people pay attention, rather than getting lost in the background.


I've read plenty of YA novels with swearing in. The Gossip Girl series is a prime example - from what I can remember, it uses the F word, and possibly worse, although it's been a long time since I read it. I don't really think anything is off-limits, to be honest. Teenagers are far less likely to filter what they say/do than the rest of us. If they already know the offensive language, why patronise them by using a sugarcoated version of a word if the swear word is more effective?

In terms of violence, as mentioned above, there are lots of YA novels that contain violence, too. So long as the violence is justifiable, there's no reason you can't go into detail. You'll lose more points with the reader for omitting something than for going into graphic detail.


It's not about language, it's about when and how you use it. Dropping the F-bomb every five words is "offensive, disgusting, distasteful, upsetting, get him out of the building."

What triggers us is seeing five consecutive fucks in conversations/monologues that are neither heated or exaggerating.

"I'm going to take the fucking mouse and scroll over to the fucking youtube and listen to goddamn classical music."

It's unnatural by any and every measure. This unnaturalness is a good cue that something is pointless/redundant, and if it is redundant then it needs to be [snip]. The same goes for rape, violence, sex and every other edgy shit that young adults like to read about.

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