I'm quoting a book (To Kill A Mockingbird) and using a quote where the n-word is used. Later I'm going to have to read that out loud while my teacher also has a copy. Should I censor the word when reading or writing it?

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    This is potentially a very controversial question that may not have a "right" answer. It's difficult to predict how your teacher or classmates will react. I would suggest that you ask your teacher how to handle this. Oct 14 '18 at 22:08
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    Possible duplicate of How to handle swear words in quote / transcription? Oct 15 '18 at 5:05
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    This is very country- and culture-dependent. I'd expect in the US this would be a very delicate matter. In many parts of the world, no one would care.
    – user68958
    Oct 15 '18 at 7:07
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    Note that the intent of using such a word is all important. To Kill a Mockingbird is not, in fact, a racist book though it contains racist words. Whether it is the best anti-racist view is open to debate, since it pits good white men against bad white men, leaving black men without agency. But it tries to point out the evil effects of racism and needs strong words to do so. There are a lot of other words in English that also attempt to deny the humanity of others. Don't use them in those ways. But also, consider the sensitivities of your audience.
    – Buffy
    Oct 15 '18 at 13:39

I'd suggest being faithful to the original. If you are quoting, you should provide the passage verbatim as it is in your source material.


As this is for a class, ask your teacher. If it was for a conference, it would be ask the chair and for a publication it would be ask the editor.

My preference would be to first determine if the quote provides something that a paraphrasing cannot. If I could paraphrase the jist, that is almost always my preference, even if the quote is not problematic. If you must quote, then you need to decide if you need to censor (or provide a disclaimer) about the language. Your style guide might help you here (but that is like asking the teacher/chair/editor).

As for presenting it when reading your paper, I would probably just omit the word with a pronounced pause, unless the word was key. If the word is key, then everyone will understand why it has to be said.

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    I don't know any style guide that provides for censoring. Any form of censorship would —at least in the literature world— be interpreted as self-censorship on the original author's part. But absolutely +1 for really asking whether the quote is necessary. Oct 15 '18 at 5:08
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    This seems awfully specific to the US and even then an enormous amount of trouble for the use of one word. It would be rather hard to come across as a responsible adult when seriously asking for such a trivial permission either orally or in writing. I guess, one might attempt to diffuse the situation by making the question about paraphrasing, but runs the risk at being ridiculous when people realize what the original intent of the request was. Oct 15 '18 at 13:39
  • @user3209815 I don't know, the BBC has editorial guidelines regarding offensive language. Most of the major English language style guides are a little US centric (e.g., AP, Chicago, MLA, APA)
    – StrongBad
    Oct 15 '18 at 14:02
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    @StrongBad I do not doubt that the modern English language is US dominated, but I wanted to stress that there are other cultures and languages in the world. I can see why the US culture is particularly sensitive to hate speech, being one of the largest perpetrators of hate crimes in history, but other nations have also their various forms of insulting and discriminatory language. That being said, the BBC guidelines you provided illustrate nicely that "context is key to the acceptability of language". In my opinion, the context of citing someone allows to restate it verbatim. Oct 16 '18 at 8:40

The book you are quoting from is very well-known, and it is unlikely that an audience would be unfamiliar with the language it uses. If you were to quote it verbatim, I doubt that this would be particularly controversial. Nevertheless, it should also be possible to quote the book passage in an altered form in a way that is not misleading to the audience. In any case, when giving a quotation from any source, to illustrate some point, it is acceptable to alter the quote so long as you have a valid reason (in the context of what you are saying) and you obey some basic rules. If you are going to alter a quotation to avoid offensive language, you need to do the following:

  • Proper attribution: Your alteration should be clearly attributed to you, so the audience knows that this is not a verbatim quote of the source. In written form this is accomplished by using the proper syntax for alterations (e.g., using ... to omit words or using [replacement] to replace words). In oral presentations you can get the same effect by showing the quote on the screen or by explicitly noting your change.

  • Don't mislead the audience: Ensure that the altered language does not mislead the audience on any material point relating to your presentation. In this post you refer to the "n-word" rather than saying the actual word, but we all know exactly what you mean, so it would probably not be misleading to use this as a substitute term. I recommend against replacing a particular epithet with a generalised [epithet] replacement, since the content of the epithet is relevant to the story.

With these points in mind, have a think about what you want to get across with your quote, and whether there is any particular necessity to include the racial epithet. If you want to omit the particular epithet, but make sure the audience knows which epithet was omitted, you could write something like this:

“Don’t you believe a word he says, Dill,” I said. “Calpurnia says that’s [n-word] talk.”

---- To Kill a Mockingbird, Ch 4

For a spoken presentation of the same thing, you should always ensure that you do not mislead the audience on the actual material. If you are using the textual replacement above, it would probably be worth noting at the start of your talk that you intend to do this, and that the book is uncensored.

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