Censors will allow bad language such as s—, —-hole and b—–ks in PG films, as they published the first list of swear words permitted in movies.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has spelled out what is and is not acceptable in U, PG and 12A/12 films for children after conducting research into parents’ and the public’s attitudes to swearing in real life and on screen.

The study, based on polling 1,000 adults and focus groups, found the use of swear words had increased in the past five years but that parents still wanted to protect their children from them.

While 61 per cent of adults said they were comfortable swearing in the presence of friends, they refrained from doing so if children could hear.

Younger adults and parents were more tolerant of bad language than older people but the context in which swear words were used in films was a critical factor in determining if they were acceptable, according to the research.

Viewers objected if swearing was targeted at someone or used in an aggressive way, particularly if it was men against women. Similar concerns were raised if the language was used in a sexually violent way.

For U films – the lowest category where content is deemed suitable for children aged four or over – the BBFC said the research showed most parents were comfortable with “damn,” “hell,” “God,” “butt,” and “jerk,” even though it admitted some people found the words “particularly offensive.”

The BBFC said that it only allowed “mild bad language” in PG films. The censors advise parents to check content in PG films because they may contain scenes that are unsuitable for younger or more sensitive children but they should not unsettle a child aged eight or over.

Words that could be used in a PG film include “bloody,” “bugger,” “s—,” and some “milder” four letter words. However, the BBFC said the film could receive a higher classification if the “words are used in an aggressive or very frequent way”. Examples of films in this category that contained swearing were Back to the Future, the 1985 film starring Michael J Fox, and Soul, an animated fantasy from 2020. 

Last year's animated film Soul featured bad language but was given a PG rating

Some stronger four letter words are allowed in films classified 12. These films are deemed unsuitable for children under 12, while 12A requires them to be accompanied by an adult.

The BBFC said one of the stronger swear words, “f—,” would only be allowed in 12/12A films depending on “context, frequency, and tone”, despite its increased use among people in the UK over the last five years.

The words that remain taboo

The censors accepted stronger swear words referring to the female anatomy remained the “last taboo” for some because of their “innate shock value.” This meant they would largely be restricted to films rated 18 and, only when justified, in films classified 15.

The BBFC also said it would continue to bleep out “strong” swear words even though the sound could “disrupt” or “detract” from a film because it gave parents an element of control.

“Children cannot hear the word. This allows parents to dilute the strength of the word being used e.g. replace ‘—-ing’ with ‘fricking’ or ‘freaking,’ said its report.

David Austin, the BBFC chief executive, said: “This research has underpinned our knowledge that parents are the gatekeepers when it comes to language at the lower age ratings: U, PG and 12A/12.

“This is why we’ve launched our guide to terms at the junior categories, so that parents can feel empowered and confident when choosing content that is right for their families.”

Despite parents being keen to protect their children, the BBFC said there was a clear generational divide. Nearly half (46 per cent) of Generation Zs used strong language daily, compared with just 12 per cent of those aged over 55.