Should You Cuss in Your Content?

Should You Cuss in Your Content?

Short answer: F&*k if I know.

Now that I’ve got the obligatory clever cursing reference out of the way, I’ll get to the business of answering the question:

I really don’t know.

No one can definitively answer this question for you or your brand. What we can do, however, is give you some guidance to help you figure out if swearing is a good idea for your particular circumstances. Let’s get to it.

Who is your audience?

This is the starting point for any writing project, really – whom are you writing for? If you’re blogging for the Coalition for Very Traditional American Values, well, don’t swear. That would be in poor taste, as people with very traditional American values don’t want to read that.

Conversely, if your audience tends to swear more liberally, you have more freedom to do so, too (with a few caveats that follow). Vice Magazine can get away with dropping expletives as they damn well please (case in point), and their readers seem just fine with it. Ditto Buzzfeed. In fact, check out Buzzfeed’s online style guide – they have entries for fuckup as a noun, fuck up as a verb, and fucked-up as an adjective. The times, they are a-changin’.

Should-You-Cuss-In-Your-Content-Fudge

What & where are you writing?

Are you penning a personal essay? A social media rant? A diatribe on the evils of corporate greed for your girlfriend’s blog? An occasional curse word might serve you well in these cases.

But if you’re guest posting on a professional third-party site, writing on the company blog or publishing your first LinkedIn article, you probably don’t want to cuss in your content.

Are you cussing for effect? Or is it part of a direct quote?

These are two different beasts. Let’s take a look.

In the first case, cursing for effect: You’re using that word because no other word will do. And such times do exist – let’s say, for example, you’re writing about that time you stepped on a burning hot George Foreman grill. Is there any more appropriate occasion to drop an F-bomb? Probably not.

Similarly, if you’re trying to express your heartfelt anger, shock, fear, disgust, etc., a scattered swear word or two could be quite effective.

In the second case, reporting on a direct quote: The AP Styleguide will tell you that profanities should only be used when directly quoting. I say, use the actual word (or an obvious modification, such as f–k). Not only do you have more leeway here, but I also believe you have a journalistic obligation to spell it out. If you jockey around the specific word, you risk confusing the reader rather than informing them. That’s not good writing.

should-you-cuss-in-your-content-AP
AP Styleguide's guideline on profanities

Besides, this isn’t Elizabethan England. The ladies aren’t going to faint. Don’t make me wonder, Well, which profane word for a male body part did the senator use in his speech? Just tell me. He said “dick.”

Decide how much perception matters to you

Growing up, I was taught the “poverty of vocabulary” hypothesis, which supposes that people curse because they have limited vocabularies. Lacking the precise word they need to express what they’re thinking or feeling, they lob out a few curse words instead.

A recent study has challenged this, purporting that proficient swearing is merely a sign of general verbal fluency (in other words, they’re not dumb, they just know a lot of words, colorful ones included). However, it’s still a somewhat common assumption that people who curse are low-class, lacking decorum, and/or just plain lazy.

Should-You-Cuss-In-Your-Content-Society

Hey. I don’t make the rules. But it’s true; some people will make assumptions about you and your brand if you cuss in your content, and they might not be nice assumptions. Are you OK with that? If not, don’t do it. If so, proceed the fuck on.

Curses carry power… so please cuss responsibly

Don’t go off on a profanity spree. It comes off as vapid and deliberately in-your-face.

After all, swear words thrive on being taboo, and if you overdo it, you risk taking away their power. One well-placed “let’s grease this rat-fuck son of a bitch” is awesome; pepper a half-dozen such proclamations in your content, and readers will wind up rolling their eyes at you. We get it, we get it, you’re a rule-breaker.

should-you-cuss-zipper-mouthBleeping them out with asterisks & stuff

This is an interesting middle ground. I do find symbol swearing (aka grawlixes) slightly more palatable than spelling out a cuss word in all its obscene glory, but the funny thing here is that we’re all adults, and we know what you meant. Some argue that if you’re going to say it, really say it; but I think symbol swearing signifies that you’re aware of others’ sensitivities and willing to meet them halfway. If you’re on the fence, this could make for a good compromise.

Curse vs Cuss vs Swear – Which Do You Say?

Do you “curse,” “cuss” or “swear”? I had a hard time coming up with a title for this blog post, because I didn’t know which one to use, which got me to thinking – why do people say one over the other?

I figured it was regional. I grew up on Long Island, NY, and we mostly said “curse” (“swear” was a close second). “Cuss” was decidedly redneck (no offense), and I don’t think I even heard it with any regularity until I moved to Phoenix. Twenty years later, it’s my new norm.

I took a poll around the Vertical Measures office and did some old-fashioned internet research, and here’s what I found:

  • “Swearing” is found in British English and in parts of American English (most notably, the Northeast).
  • “Cursing” is decidedly American.
  • “Cussing” is found in the Southern, Southwestern and middle America dialects of American English. It is also the more informal choice; the New York Times would never report that, “The alleged perpetrator could be heard cussing as he ran from the bank.”
should-you-cuss-map

Also interesting: “Curse” encompasses a whole bunch of foul language that “cuss” doesn’t. Whereas “curse” and “cuss” can be used interchangeably when describing obscenities, you can’t use “cuss” to describe a hex or some sort of supernatural wrath, as you can with “curse.”

One of my coworkers suggested there was a connection to Catholicism on this one, and I think there might be something to that. When my boss approves my request for a sabbatical to investigate, I will.

Which do you say? Any thoughts on why or where one term is more prevalent than another?

Final thought: Let common sense be your guide

If cussing is common among your audience and you can live with offending the occasional straight-laced reader who happens upon your content, go for it. Just remember, more is not better here, and when in doubt, don’t.

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Megan Krause
megank@verticalmeasures.com

Megan is a content manager at Vertical Measures. She joined the company with 15 years of experience in communication and marketing, first in journalism (remember print?) and then in PR, web content writing and editing roles. Megan is passionate about words, language, grammar, punctuation and style, and she loves helping companies create great content that drives leads and boosts conversions. She is fastidious when it comes to editing, outgoing when it comes to people and amorous when it comes to chocolate. She’s a native New Yorker, diehard indoors enthusiast and mom to two amazing teens.