Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 5, 2011

Blue Language and Purple Prose

Last week I discovered the terms, “Blue Language” and “Purple Prose.”  I hope that doesn’t make me appear dumb, but I figured if I had to look for answers than maybe some of you might be sailing in the same boat with me and enjoy reading a little about both.  First I will give you the definitions and then share what Author and Agent John Cusick had to say about both.

BLUE LANGUAGE:  bad language, billingsgate, colorful language, cursing, cussing, dirty language, dirty talk, dysphemism, evil speaking, filth, filthy language, foul language, obscenity, profane swearing, profanity, ribaldry, scatology, strong language, swearing, unparliamentary language, unrepeatable expressions, vile language, vulgar language (you get the idea.)

Agent John Cusick says, “teens love blue (profane or vulgar) language. (So do I.) It’s fun, funny, taboo, and often the way teenagers speak to one another. Raised by a mother who talks like a trucker, I have to check myself, when I speak and when I write, to ensure I don’t curse a…well, a blue streak. But fiction, and especially dialog, must be believable, which ironically is not always the same thing as true-to-life. At times “realistic’ teen dialog is so vulgar as to be distracting. And that’s the real problem with extreme language of any kind: it steals focus. I don’t want my readers thinking about my protagonist’s foul mouth when they should be thinking about her broken heart.

Today I struggled to tamp both purple and blue. In the scene I was working on, my protagonist and her boyfriend slip into the bushes for some hanky-panky. My first impulse was to pan away and describe the slowly spinning wheel of boyfriend’s bike as it glints in the sun. Yawn. Turning focus back to the kids, I found myself using the same blue language the characters themselves would have used to describe their actions, but the result was too graphic. I settled for skipping the play-by-play entirely and used suggestive post-romp details instead. This was the result:

They made it as far as Sweet Creek before a private path through the trees enticed them off the road. They let the bike fall with a crunch, the upended front wheel spinning freely. Twenty minutes later Cherry was brushing a mud stain from her slacks, and Lucas searched for his sock in the bushes.

            “You have leaves in your hair,” he said.

            “I have leaves everywhere.” She felt like a wild woods girl, a sprite. She wanted to climb into the nearest oak and fall asleep. She stretched, felt an ache above her solar plexus and winced.


Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages; these are often noted as standing out from the rest of the work.

Again I quote John.  He says, “I’m a sucker for purple prose. I’m not proud of it, but alliteration makes me swoon, as does a prettily described sunset or milkmaid. (Some favorite examples appear in Proust’s Swann’s Way, a five-hundred-page book about a cookie). But my love of flowery language is, I think, just another symptom of English Major-itis: the desire to write and read Great Works of Art as opposed to Stories. And though they’re often fun to write, beautiful descriptions are best avoided, *especially* in young adult literature. Teens read for plot, not for prose. My 13-year-old sister and other teens I’ve spoken to skip the “boring parts,” which are almost always the descriptions. Descriptions are the icing, and if you’ve ever eaten a jar of icing on its own, you know it only feels good at first.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Blue language? That’s a new one for me. Now I can look smart to those who I critique. Seriously speaking, I love the scene you opted to do. It is subtle…and even more grapic in some odd way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to look it up to and ended up here. Thanks 🙂


  3. Hmm. Guess I better go back and take a second look at my steamy pages. Thanks.


    • Daisy,

      Steamy is okay in the right story.



  4. I love reading purple prose, and avopid novels devoid of it; therefroe, I cannot be deterred by any of your propaganda from writing PP shamelessly and incessantly.


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