Mind your f%&/ing language!


Like Grandma used to say…

I swear.  I swear like a sailor on leave stumbling out of a bar after striking out with even the hookers.  I can do it in two languages.  I’m quite proud of that fact.

However, I’m also aware that it’s not always appropriate.  I work with executives and graduate students, so I have to temper my language, unless questions about such language come up in the context of a lesson.

Now, the question has come up often on Scribophile, the online writing community where I workshop my stories: is this kind of language acceptable?  My answer is a resounding “Yes, when it is acceptable, it is most certainly acceptable.  When it’s not, it’s not.”  In the spirit of this paragraph, please enjoy this tasty waffle.


Before I talk about writing, let me discuss the real world.  My feeling is that they are only words, a kind of lingo common in certain social contexts or situations.  The church lady who drops the Bible on her way to the pulpit will most likely say something like, “Darn it!” while the construction worker who drops his hammer on his foot will shout a “Fuck!”  They are expressing themselves in the way they learned, with the words appropriate to their respective worlds.   I wouldn’t expect them to trade their words.  (Nor am I so naïve as to think that all construction workers and church ladies fall into such rigid categories; I’ve known some priests who are very proficient in the art of cursing.)

What are these words, exactly?  Why is one word a “bad” word, but its softened equivalent is just fine?  “Fuck” is the big one, the four letter word, but we can say “frig” and nobody will be offended.  (Offended, no, but I think more than a couple of people in earshot will giggle at the silliness of it.)  “Shit”?  Oh, no.  Say, “Shoot.”  Of course, I understand that there are rules that most of us agree upon in a civilized society, so I’m willing to temper my language according to the environment.  No big deal.

But what about in writing?  Same rules apply, as far as I’m concerned.

I wrote a story once about a woman who wakes up to find her husband dead on the floor.  She says, “Dammit, honey.”  A critique for the story pointed this line out, asking me, “Does she really need to curse?”  Um, yeah.  I think even the church lady mentioned above would in this situation.  (That was only half the shock for me.  Is “dammit” really considered that bad of a word these days?)

Two stories.

  1. A teenage boy in a car with his father and his father’s friend.  The adults are drinking beer while driving down a country road into town.  Father’s friend convinces the boy to cut school to take him into town to a hooker, giving him whiskey on the way.
  2. A proper housewife, her love for her husband long gone stagnant, decides to slip away into the night.

First story: lots of naughty words.

Second story: she’s behaved herself so far.  She might let a “damn” or “hell” slip, but I don’t think so.

My last point, I promise:  Swearing or not swearing is not an indication of someone’s intelligence or class.  I don’t believe this for a moment.  I do believe that those who subscribe to this theory are missing out on knowing some very insightful people in corners of the world that they avoid because of this prejudice.

So what is your take on this debate?

This entry was posted in Psychology, Reading, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Mind your f%&/ing language!

  1. CJ Jessop says:

    I pretty much agree with everything you said, especially your last point.

    In writing, my characters swear when the situation warrants it, and the words they use depend on their life experience. I won’t say background, because even sweet little old church-going ladies might let the naughtiest of words slip in the right circumstances.

  2. I used to avoid having my characters curse. I still had them say “bad words”, I just worked around them. Like, “he spit a string of curses out…” instead of putting it directly in dialogue.

    Awhile back, however, I began just putting the cursing in dialogue. It felt made some characters feel more real. And instead of having to twist my words up to get the effect without the actual words, I can just say them.

    I do sometimes overuse them for characters and I have to try to cut back at times. But I think it’s a very effective way to communicate and for some characters, it’s the only way they know. I wrote a story one time based on a real life person I knew — he always cursed like a sailor, so the f-bomb and other curses were dropped many many times over the course of the story. It just had to be that way for this story — that was the nature of this man, and I was writing true to that.

    Anyway, I do understand those who don’t like to read profanity. If it’s excessive, like every other word, I do have a problem, too. But I rarely see that in stories. 🙂

    And your stories, George, I always think have the precise right amount of profanity. I’ve never felt it over over the top. 🙂

    • Thanks, Alexis. I try to keep it to what’s realistic. (And realistic can be diferent from real, of course.)

      I remember the story of yours that you reference here. Good piece. What ever happened to that?

      • Thanks! It’s been rejected a few times and is currently submitted out. Having a hard time placing it because it’s not genre fiction and it’s a bit rough for most literary markets, ya know?

        • I feel your pain. Genre is my enemy. I’m usually unsure where to send my pieces.

          • Yeah, if it’s not Fantasy, Sci-fi or Horror, I’m usually stuck with the piece indefinitely. “General” kicks my butt every single time. 😛 Ah well, here’s wishing you continued success, my friend — you’re on quite the roll this year. 🙂

  3. Adam Wells says:

    One of the things that people forget is that it’s the act of spewing a blasphemy that is the so-called “violation.” When considering that, one realizes that the church lady saying “darn it” and the sailor dropping a “fuck” when the hammer hits his foot are one in the same – they’re just expressing their disdain with different words. The act is still the same in both cases.

    Also, “fuck” is second fiddle to “cunt” now.

  4. Exactly, Adam. The act is the same, the words and their standing in society are arbitrary. For example, in most of the Spanish speaking world, the word “coger” means “to grab,” while in Mexico and a couple other countries, it means “to fuck.” Go figure.

  5. ED Martin says:

    I had students who had no problem dropping the f-bomb left and right in class, but refused to even read aloud “damn” in a story because that was blasphemous.

    As for when it’s appropriate, I believe less is more. If your timid little church lady screams out “I fucking hate you” to someone who brings the wrong casserole, you KNOW she’s really mad. But if that construction worker wants to demonstrate his rage, he can’t tell someone to fuck off because he probably says that every half hour. For him, “fuck” has lost its power and is just another word.

  6. I agree that less is more, ED. It should be appropriate, and not used simply to shock the reader. I think that having the church lady drop and f-bomb could come off as cheap and for effect, when there are better ways to show her anger or frustration.

  7. nfinitet says:

    I struggle with cursing as well, mainly because I’m not sure where people that make publishing decisions draw the line between YA and adult. Some of my characters curse for real while some just “utter a string of profanity” and one or two go out of their way to do anything but curse.The way each character handles cursing is a part of who they are as characters.

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