Yes, there are ethical and unethical “words.” Single words in a single sentence, or just as a single word, not in a sentence.  The writing world includes lists of common ethical and unethical words.

Here are a few ethical words, starting with the letter a: Ability, Above-board, Accepting, Accommodating, Acknowledgment, Admission, Adorable, Allegiance, Altruism, Amiable, Amicable, Anxious, Appreciative, Articulate, Aspiration, Asset, Attentive, and Attitude.[1]

You can make your own list of unethical words by selecting their antonyms.

The elementary point of this seemingly pointless exercise is a small subset of ethical writing; ethical writing ought to exist at the smallest levels, like diction, word choice, and word-consciousness.

Any discussion of unethical words should start by recalling fundamental principles—the difference between ethics and morals. “Morals” are guiding principles. “Ethics” are specific rules, acts, or behaviors. As writers, we see “moral precepts as ideas, or opinions driven by a desire to be good. An ethical code is a set of rules that defines allowable actions, or correct behavior.”[2]

Because what is moral is an opinion rather than a fact, writers face the dilemma inherent in valuing one over the other. Moral conduct is not always ethical. Ethical precepts or rules are often immoral, depending on one’s own moral standards. What is assumed immoral conduct in some religious settings is often acceptable in secular environments.

For example, take the word “profanity.” It is not an unethical word. However, profanity is socially offensive language,[3] which may also be called curse words or swearing (British English), cuss words (American English and Canada), swear words, bad words, crude language, coarse language, oaths, blasphemous language, vulgar language, lewd language, choice words, or expletives.[4] If we use profanity in our work, we must also take care to be culturally sensitive. Profanity is language generally thought to be at least impolite, if not downright rude, and personally offensive.[5]

In an earlier era of writing, and in a literal sense, using profane language was disrespectful, irreverent, and religiously offensive. Etymologically, “the term ‘profane’ originates from classical Latin “profanus”, literally “before (outside) the temple”. It carried the meaning of either “desecrating what is holy” or “with a secular purpose” as early as the 1450s.[6]  Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, considered sinful, and directly violating The Ten Commandments.[7]

Today, profanity is widely accepted in novels, short stories, tweets, texts, and notes passed across school desks in high school and college. It is heard frequently in conversations, exclamations, and informal pronouncements. Analyses of recorded conversations reveal that an average of roughly 80–90 words that a person speaks each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swear words, with usage varying from 0% to 3.4%. In comparison, first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up 1% of spoken words.[8]

Ethical words are easier to find but harder to define. The word ethical comes from the Greek ethos “moral character.” One is of either good or bad moral character, if they are truthful, fair, and honest, like boy scouts. Just as few well-behaved women make history, few writers adhere to strict lines of truthfulness, fairness, and honesty when they write. They may be boy-scout-like in all other respects, but writers create characters and dialogue that calls for words that might offend and scenes that might titillate.

So, if we can write without dissecting each word for ethical muster, a safe fallback is to do what writing associations suggest is ethical writing.

Like NAIWE,[9] we should adhere to the high standards of ethical behavior: “We will support the artistic, academic, and/or business goals of those we work with. We will treat each client’s creative works as private and confidential, and protect the integrity of information or documents entrusted to us for writing or editing. We will be fair . . . and unbiased . . . competent . . . accept no contract that we will be unable to fulfill in a timely, professional manner . . . accept no work outside the scope of the writer or editor’s expertise . . .”[10]

Can you say fuct in court? It’s a word used by no less an authority than SCOTUS.[11] Dirty words make it to the U.S. Supreme Court only occasionally. Only once this year—in a case involving a clothing line named “FUCT.” The issue was whether the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office acted unconstitutionally when it refused to grant trademark protection to the brand name. And, for the justices, the immediate problem was how to discuss the F-word without actually saying it. They ruled for it, more or less.[12]


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] https://myvocabulary.com/word-list/ethics-vocabulary/

[2] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/unethically

[3] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/profanity

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profanity

[5] Ibid.

[6]  Oxford English Dictionary Online, “profane”, retrieved 2012-02-14.  Harper, Douglas. “Profane”. Online Etymology Dictionary.

[7] http://www.openbible.info/topics/bad_words

[8] Jay, T. (2009). “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words” (PDF). Perspectives on Psychological Science. 4 (2): 153–161. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01115.x. Retrieved 2012-11-19. See also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profanity note 14.

[9] National Association of Independent Writers and Editors

[10] https://naiwe.com/about/ethics.php

[11] Supreme Court of the United States.

[12] https://www.npr.org/2019/04/16/713632552/supreme-court-dances-around-the-f-word-with-real-potential-financial-consequence