Does editing out offensive language help?

So I’ve read a few good books lately that have just had more strong language (a nicer way of saying “the f-word” or rarer vulgarities) in them than I would like to see (and honestly, I’d really rather there be none, but occasionally I can understand one or two uses). One I thought was fantastic was Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian. Great book. Only drawback? About 14 f-words. Really? Why did he have to put those in there? He could have quoted some odd characters without using their exact words all the time, and he could have made clear perfectly adequately they were colorful without using all that strong language. I am that confident in his descriptive skills as a writer.

Since I wanted to share the book with my book club, the women in which share my sensibilities about vulgar content, I felt an obligation to (a) warn them about the language and (b) share with them my whited-out personal copy so they didn’t have to see all that vulgarity right there in black print. (Yes, I used a Wite-Out pen to “erase” all those f-words.) I figured if someone else had read it first and recommended it, I’d prefer to read the edited version.

whited out textSo here’s the question: does it make a difference “whiting” or “blacking” out bad language, so you can tell it was once there? Will your mind immediately fill it in anyway? Or does it make a difference not to actually see that offensive kind of content, even if you know it was there? In a similar vein, does listening to a popular song that has some bad language edited out, a quick silence in its place, or watching a movie on TV that’s been edited (let’s just say language been “quieted out” rather than replaced by less bad language), feel not much different than just hearing the language anyway? Does the silence get filled in in your brain? Or are you grateful just not to hear it in reality, even if you know that’s what’s been taken out?

I also wonder if we all might have different reactions to this because of how our brains process information. Some of us learn and remember in a more visual way and others via audio. (I just see and remember things; my husband remembers everything he’s heard, for instance.) If we’re visual, will we just fill in a blank when we know something’s been taken out in print; or if we’re audio, will we fill in with audio? Or vice versa? Or does it matter?

Obviously, it would just be nicer for those of us who do have more sensitivity to language in books or music or TV/movies if those media came without the vulgarity in the first place. But since some do, does it help to edit them and leave obvious holes that we could possibly fill in mentally, or is it just best to avoid them altogether?

Just curious about what you all think. Of course, if you don’t care about bad language or vulgar content and don’t really consider it too offensive, all of this is a moot point, so don’t make arguments about the basic concept. But if you do care about this, either for your own reading/viewing or for that of a child, I’d love to hear what you think.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: