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In my earlier question Could I use strong language?, I was wondering if I could use strong language in my mid-grade book. This time I wanted to ask if someone could tell me is it okay for me to use symbols to replace the curse words so that the reader wouldn't be too affected by the strong language.

Main question: If I use symbols like '@#$^^' would this be able to replace the need for me to write out the curse word in the story?

3 Answers 3

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I remember working on a book when I was your age, and having the exact same question!

The short answer is "no." Symbols as a substitute for curse words are a convention from the world of comic books, you'll almost never see them used in a regular book --it would make your work look cartoonish.

Prose writers who want to avoid curse words typically use one of the following: Euphemisms/substitutes ("forget you!" "fudge!" "cut out the frickin' noise already!"), descriptions ("he swore" "he replied with a very bad word"), or interruptions/elisions ("what the...?" "You little piece of sh--"). Every once in a while you'll see just the first (or first and last) letter with a line of dashes, but that's a bit old-fashioned ("you've just made a big f----g mistake").

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The curse words you use affect the tone of your story

You can use any words you like to represent cursing in your story. Options include real curses, 'baby' curse words (e.g. 'fudged or 'heck'), fake curse words (e.g. 'frack' or 'shells'), foreign curse words, described curses (e.g. "she shouted something crude') or even, yes, symbols instead of curse words. Symbols have a long tradition of being used to represent curses, particularly in comics, and their use as such will be widely recognized.

But the choice you make matters, and it can be jarring if the curse words you pick don't match the tone of the story. Can you imagine if the characters in Game of Thrones ran around saying "fudge" or "dang"? Or consider the effect it had, when after seven books of "Merlin's Beard!" Molly Weasley yells out "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"

Symbolic cursing is strongly associated with comics, particularly comics for younger audiences. If your book is aimed at such audiences, or is trying to set a lighthearted tone then symbolic cursing won't feel out of place. But if you are trying to write a serious or tonally dark book, then symbolic cursing will likely undercut the emotions you are trying to evoke.

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  • Due to the verbose lead-up, I almost missed the answer in the last paragraph :)
    – Levente
    May 28, 2021 at 5:15
  • The prior question stipulated mid-grade. She should have probably put that in this question.
    – DWKraus
    May 28, 2021 at 5:16
  • Symbolic Cursing in comics is called "grawlix" and is used in comics for all age (most mainstream comics these days are written for a more mature audience and will make use of them) and comics commonly available on the store shelves are generally PG-13 (There's a whole history of American Comic books trying to present a clean image to the public.). The only work of fiction I know that used them was the book version of "Who Framed Rodger Rabbit" where this was because of the nature of cartoons in the book (who were more like comic characters than classic 40s cartoons).
    – hszmv
    May 28, 2021 at 12:10
  • As a personal note, I always read grawlix as sounding like something similar to the non-verbal swearing Joe Peschi's character was doing in Home Alone.
    – hszmv
    May 28, 2021 at 12:11
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You could - but I don't think it works particularly well. In more visual media such as comics it's an effective shorthand but in prose it's awkward to read and unnecessary when you can describe what's happening:

His mind was still preoccupied with the events of that morning as he swung the hammer at the nail and he missed. Sharp pain blossomed as his unprotected thumb took the full force of the blow and he swore loudly.

You can also have character begin a swear word but then bring themselves up short - it's something that you see people do in real life all the time and is another way to get the point across without actually having to complete the word, but this effectively makes it canonical that they didn't say the word, which might not be what you're aiming for.

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