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Mind your language

The presence of potentially offensive language in a text can be a tricky thing for copy-editors to approach. But is it always a bad thing?

As always, context is key. Fiction writers can usually get away with as much vulgarity as they deem necessary for the development of their story. That said, endless, unnecessary repetition of f’s and c’s will probably get tiresome to many readers and lessen the impact of more selective and well-placed swearing.

Non-fiction is another matter. While you wouldn’t expect an academic to pepper their text with profanity, sometimes it may be unavoidable if they’re quoting from sources that contain bad language in the first place. In these instances, it shouldn’t really be necessary to censor, unless the publisher specifically demands it.

While simple swear words are one matter, language that could be considered offensive in other ways is another kettle of fish entirely. The Chicago Manual of Style notes that: ‘Careful writers avoid language that reasonable readers might find offensive or distracting—unless the biased language is central to the meaning of the writing.’ It can still crop up, however, and most publishers will give a copy-editor licence to remove any discriminatory or otherwise biased language without querying with the author.

A book I worked on that contained some discussion of European attitudes towards aspects of Africa in the first half of the twentieth century is one such example. The author, in all innocence, used some of the terms that were in accepted use in the pre-war period (and appeared in quotations throughout the manuscript) in their own text, making it necessary for me to swap these for currently accepted terms in order to make it clear that any offensive wording was not that of the author themselves. I still allowed for occasional use within quotations and in ways such that it was clear this was the language of the time.

When working directly with an author as a private client, it becomes more pertinent to explain why you think you should remove a word, or as in one book I worked on, several whole pages, which while clearly written with the best intentions, came across as a typical, unfortunate piece of ‘Some of my best friends are BAME’ hole digging.

When undertaking localisation projects, it’s also important to remember that some words are used very differently on the opposite sides of the Atlantic. While asking for a fag might engender very different responses on the streets of Washington, County Durham, and Washington DC, New Hart’s Rules suggests that such homographs ‘should probably be left alone in localizing text unless it is suspected that an offensive misunderstanding may result’.

Slang or cant (mind that vowel) can, of course, be a lot of fun too. The English language has a rich history of weird and wonderful developments as, to quote Max Décharné in his wonderfully fun and informative Vulgar Tongues, people ‘seized the King’s or Queen’s English by the throat and took it to places it would probably regret in the morning’. Some of the vilest and contemporarily popular swear words have far longer histories of use than many realise.

Ultimately, strong language has its place, but within context. Writers should do their best to deploy swear words carefully and effectively, and be mindful of language and phrasing that may offend. As editors, we must be on watch to make sure this is achieved, and that any potentially offensive language is used appropriately and its use and context adds value that is clear to the reader.


The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edn, Chicago: University of Chicago (2017)

New Hart’s Rules, part 1 of New Oxford Style Manual, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2016)

Max Décharné, Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang, London: Serpent’s Tail (2016)

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