Heck vs. Hell


Native speakers, I need your help!

I'm proofreading a short story written by a non-native where a child (~11-12 yo) says the following line to another child (~14-15 yo, this one is a high-school freshman):

"I didn't even know we had something like that in the attic, what the hell was Dad thinking?"

I suggested to the author that 'what the heck' would be more appropriate vocabulary for a child that age than 'what the hell' and we had a bit of an argument over it. I based my choice on what I've seen in movies and cartoons ('gosh darn it all to heck!', anyone? :) ) but now I'm not sure about it, either... Any feedback?

  • JamesM

    Senior Member
    It's a tricky subject. In some families "hell" would be considered very offensive. In others it would be completely normal. I think there is a large part of the U.S. where "cursing / swearing" is still considered very offensive, where even many (most?) adults will avoid using such words except in extreme circumstances. Then again, I've walked down the halls of the local high school and have been stunned by the language I heard there.

    I think a case can be made for the use of either word. As I said, it's complicated.


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    In my experience, people seldom say "heck" for "hell" unless they have a specific reason not to say "hell." That might be fear of censorship in a TV show or movie (less of a concern today than in the past), religious belief, or fear of a parent's or another person's disapproval. Unless one of these applies to the character in this story, I think even an eleven-year-old would probably say "hell."


    Senior Member
    English UK
    i agree with Egmont. I think an eleven-year-old speaking to a fourteen-year-old would probably say "hell" rather than "heck".


    I'd say heck. If my children said hell, I'd wash their mouth out with soap (like my mother did to me).

    Loob and Egmont are correct--many people would say hell. However, it isn't acceptable in all audiences. When I lived in Germany, I learned that Germans weren't impressed by my knowledge of German swear words. Now, when my wife uses English swear words, I tell her not to do so.


    Senior Member
    I have an American friend who might use heck, never hell, just when he is really "angry" (I'd probably describe it as pissed off), then I met people who used enough F words to pave a sidewalk with and found it quite natural, and then my sis, who lives in California, told me that her kids' grandmother would have preferred my nephew to say shit instead of damn, and... then I witnessed a "real" talk of three guys who were old college friends, all of them English, and I was "shocked" as they kept throwing the C word around finding it quite natural. So the times are a-changin' and it all depends on the speaker's register and the people he/she is talking to — audiences as lacardis called them :confused:
    By the way I'm afraid, young kids and teenagers tend to be more vulgar than adults, thinking it makes them "more adult"


    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    I don't want to guess what a child of that age would or would not say, without actually observing one over a long period, but I want to point out that if there is a scale of swear words that children move up as they age (bloody being mild and fuck being strong, for example), there is also separately a cultural context of what is and isn't a strong word. In Quebec they swear by bits of church achitecture, in Norway they summon up the devil, and in the English-speaking world we largely concentrate on the lower half of the body (poo, cock, etc.). For me as a BrE speaker, hell is not a mild swear-word, it's not a swear-word at all, and I am astonished when some people consider it even mildly questionable. Hell and damn aren't for me anywhere on the scale that starts with bloody and bitch and wee and gets nastier as you get older.


    All righty... I discussed this with the author some more and apparently, the two children are supposed to come from a middle-class family that's very involved in community life. After some more back-and-forth, we finally agreed on 'heck' being a better choice because the parents would probably want their children to watch their language especially if other adults happened to hear them.

    Thanks for your input, everyone. It was very interesting to read different opinions on swearing in different cultures :)


    Senior Member
    USA, English
    When I was about eleven years old I read the word "hell" in the New York Times, so I figured it was OK to use that word.

    About a half hour before dinner I said, "Mom, what the hell are we having for dinner?" After which I discovered that just because it is printed in the NY Times doesn't mean that it is OK to use the word.

    A husband wearing a wife-beater could probably get away with using this to his brow-beaten wife; others beware.
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