What the Hell Do You Do About Profanity?

By Mark Nichol

What place, if any, does profanity have in writing? There are as many different answers as there are types of writing.

Fiction

Novels that purport to reflect real life must include profanity if the life they reflect includes use of profanity. This is difficult to accept for many people of a certain age, dismayed by the ubiquity of swearwords in modern literature, who have the disadvantage of having grown up during an era when books and movies were censored. (But let’s get real: In the Old West, cantankerous cowboys did not refer to each other as “You no-good so-and-so,” and in combat, to paraphrase a well-known expression, there are no decorous speakers in foxholes.) Popular entertainment often admittedly goes overboard in drenching dialogue in profanity, but that is merely an exaggeration, not a fabrication, of reality.

If you’re going to write novels or short stories, it seems that to be honest with yourself and your readers, if a story takes place in a milieu in which profanity is uttered, at least some of your characters are going to be swearing. If, however, the setting does not lend itself to cursing, it’s not an issue.

Nonfiction

Over the past couple of years, several nonfiction books with asterisk-laden titles have appeared, including Sh*t My Dad Says, a compendium of quotations from the author’s foul-mouthed father; the self-explanatory A**holes Finish First and The Complete A**hole’s Guide to Handling Chicks; the bedtime-book parody Go the F**k to Sleep; and the latest example, the trivia compendium The Little Book of Big F*#k Ups: 220 of History’s Most Regrettable Moments. These books were preceded some years ago by the memoir Another Bull**** Night in Suck City, which is being adapted into a film starring Robert DeNiro. (The movie version, apparently, is titled Welcome to Suck City.)

Our society is not yet ready for uncensored book covers (or movie titles), but the pages between are accessible only to those who choose to access them, whether in a bookstore or a library (or someone’s home), so outcries of outrage are pointless. Few book publishers would permit profanity in books targeted to minors, but you might argue that children can thumb through such books in the adult-trade shelves. If, while doing so, they see swear words they don’t already know (whether they use them or not), what damage, exactly, has been done? Explicit sex and violence are a much greater concern than naughty words.

Again, if you choose to write — in this case, nonfiction — and if swearing is appropriate to your presentation, cuss away. If it isn’t, the question is irrelevant.

Journalism and Online Publications

Does profanity have a place in journalism? Mainstream print publications, and their online versions, so as to avoid alienating subscribers and advertisers, are unlikely to reproduce quoted profanity or allow it in the narrative. If it is necessary to report that a profane or obscene word was uttered or was printed elsewhere, the publication will either disguise the word with asterisks or other marks, or paraphrase it.

Publications that cater to certain demographics, however, tend to allow foul language for dramatic or comic effect. You can protest that such usage is gratuitous or excessive, but that means the publication is not appropriate for you, not that it’s inappropriate.

Newspapers and magazines, whether read on paper or on screen, are commercial products, and editors will determine what constitutes acceptable content in the context of the market. Publishers of niche publications, and of self-published materials such as blogs, are entitled to decide for themselves.

Degrees of Profanity

Ultimately, the question any purveyor of prose must answer is, where do you draw the line? Certain four-letter words are either acceptable or anathema. But what about minor league profanity: hell, damn, and the like? If you prohibit these words in your publication, what about heck, darn, and gosh, which are all merely disguised forms of literally profane profanity? What about effing or bleep? Everyone knows what each means or could mean. Why permit euphemisms or evasive explications? Don’t you risk offending readers or site visitors who resent such coy conjurings intended to wink-and-nudge them about what you might otherwise have explicitly stated?

The more significant connotation of that question is, why choose profanity over no profanity? Using profane and obscene words certainly communicates passion, but are you taking the low road, the easy way out, by dropping f-bombs instead of raising eloquent arguments? Are you debasing language, and culture, by pandering to provocation?

I’m not advocating or attacking profanity. I swear on occasion, and not just when I hit my thumb with a hammer. I believe that use of profanity in speech or writing can be both a rich source of humor and effective as an emphatic rhetorical device. But it doesn’t matter what I think. For both producers and consumers of content, it is an individual issue: Either you accept it, or you don’t.

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19 Responses to “What the Hell Do You Do About Profanity?”

  • Chihuahua0

    Profanity in fiction: In my opinion, less is better. I write YA, but I think carefully positioning profanity in natural yet impactful places is better than sprinkling it around like how teenagers use it in real life.

  • Marc Leavittt

    Profanity is a part of language. The use of profanity is subjective and situational. It should be proscribed on the foregoing basis. Gratuitous use of profanity is merely stupid. A felicitous use of profanity is appropriate.

  • Paul M

    I use profanity in fiction sparingly and only when it would fit appropriately, such as in dialogue.

    In non fiction, especially in persuasive writing, where I may think that it would fit, I imagine that I would immediately lose the confidence of some readers, no matter how good the rest of the argument was.

    My dad has always been notorious with profanity, and I’ve inherited much of his colourful language, much to the dismay of my wife at times, and the fact that I’ve spent many years working in construction didn’t help.

    All in all, I think less is more.

  • Deborah H

    I agree that less is more. One perfectly placed swear word is infinitely more valuable than a constant stream of them.

  • thebluebird11

    Damn! That was a great article! What a shocker to see the word “hell” in my email inbox! I love the fact that (as far as I’ve seen) no topic is taboo here.

  • ApK

    bluebird, I agree, but I trust you’d also agree that a topic “not being taboo” doesn’t mean that we need to be inundated with impolite language.

    This is a peeve of mine. Let me rant for a moment:
    Profanity, as the term is commonly used, whether or not it is truly profane, is impolite at best.

    I get so tired of people using “everybody talks that way” as an excuse to use f*** after after every other word, be it in writing or in conversation.
    Firstly, everyone does not talk that way. I do not. My family did not, and I am trying to raise my kids to make better language choices.
    Secondly, even if lots of folks talk that way, that is no reason that people should not hold themselves to slightly classier and more polite communication style.

    That being said, I see value in profanity when thoughtfully applied for effect. I can think of a small handful of appropriate situations in real life.
    In fiction, similarly, I cannot imagine, as I’ve said in another forum, Charlton Heston falling to his knees before the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and crying out “Darn you! Darn you all to heck!”

    ApK

  • devmodo

    I have just begun writing. So, you can definitely count me among the newcomers to the arena. I consider myself old-school. Of course, I don’t see any point to profanity anywhere. I don’t use it in my regular life so why am I going to use it in writing? I am 100 percent sure I can convey the same meaning and urgency of dire circumstances without the use of profanity.

  • Ken K

    What a great post, Mark. … What about profanity in social media (i.e., facebook)?

  • Steve M

    Mark,
    Nicely done treatise on a touchy subject. As with anything, the appropriateness of the expletive to the subject matter or tone is definitely a key consideration. One determining factor, as indicated here, would be the intended audience.

    I find it quite humorous, at times, that the “camouflage” in which the expletive is disguised will often bring more attention to the word than an outright use. Case in point: on the SyFy channel (one of my favorites), there has been increased use of the fake expletive “frack.” Frack this, frack that, no fracking way! In “fract,” its use is almost more offensive, and certainly more irritating, than its intended replacement.

    A little “salt” or seasoning can enhance the recipe. Too much or an inappropriate blend will spoil the soup. As for social media, I believe its use should be carefully thought out, especially for freelance writers. In the case of social media, keep in mind not only the intended audience, but the possible audience as well. Would a potential client be offended, thus losing you a possible job? It is better to discuss their preference after you connect than losing the chance before you’ve even met.

    Steve

  • Tony Wilson

    Reminds me of Microsoft’s Encarta World English Dictionary (now deceased) which had the naughty bits censored. It always struck me as futile as one had to know the word to look it up and not finding it would not warn an innocent of its vulgarity. If a kid wants to read through a book looking for the dirty bits I say let him – accidental learning is never bad. I also remember teasing a young mother for using WTF – she was emphatic that it is not swearing. We dilute words all the time then forget their roots. Gosh!

  • Jon

    For creative use of profanity, you can’t go past “The Thick Of It”, especially what has been described as almost Shakespearean sophisticated swearing of Malcolm Tucker.

  • MaryHodges

    I was interested to see the use of “frack” as an expletive. On the Lancashire coast near where I live there is currently much controversy about fracking, a technique for pumping liquid into a hole under pressure to access underground gas or oil. This can be damaging to the environment and has been blamed for minor earth tremors in the area.

    A linguistic boost for the anti-fracking campaigners!

  • Stephen Thorn

    An excellent post, Mark, but it may be helpful to distinguish the different types of explicit language — profanity and obscenity — since the two have different literal definitions. Profanity, as I understand it, refers to debasing a revered item (ex. the infamous God da**) whereas obscenity refers to explicit words intended to shock the senses or excite the baser emotions (including sexually explicit slang and terminology, the “F bomb”, etc.). This distinction is so important that judges have ruled in court that obscene speech (including “flipping the bird” hand gesture) is a protected form of speech in the US and that profanity is, by definition, not obscene and therefore non-prosecutable.

    My writing often deals with frank and explicit subjects and use of “cussing” by the characters I create is sometimes appropriate. But, like any facet of writing good dialogue, a writer must be circumspect in his usage of slang and gutter-speech, keeping it when it is needed and eschewing it when it can be omitted.

    As always, a writer must consider his intended audience as well as his characters’ individual traits. If your character is a rough, coarse fellow he will probably swear and curse quite fluently, but if you’re putting him in a story intended for an audience that would take offense at such crudity then you’d be wise to temper his words a bit or you risk losing a sale.

  • Bryan Thomas Schmidt

    “If you’re going to write novels or short stories, it seems that to be honest with yourself and your readers, if a story takes place in a milieu in which profanity is uttered, at least some of your characters are going to be swearing.” I have to disagree about this. I don’t think it’s a requirement. You can be creative and find ways for people to do some work for you. If you say “Bob cursed as he walked away” or “She heard Bob cursing across the way” people will fill in curse words in their own mind and there are other devices. It really depends on the audience and your goals for the book. Profanity, I think, is frequently abused and overused. And there are many times I hear people complain about how unnecessary and distracting it was. I think it’s a matter of a lot of factors that would make an author choose not to use it.

  • Aubrey

    Nine times out ten, I think profanity can be left of writing and no one will miss it. One the other hand, I find the original intent of “cussing” (to shock or surprise) is most effective when the person speaking rarely cusses. I remember watching Restoring Love and being quite surprised when Glenn Beck told his audience to “get the d–m job done.”

  • Tricia

    Hi 🙂

    Well, I don’t use it and I don’t want to hear it, so when I pick up a book to entertain me, I don’t want, or expect, to find it.

    I appreciate that books depicting criminals, soldiers in battle, etc, might have to include such language for realism, but in romances, for example, I expect beautiful escapism.

    I can hear swearing and see grey clouds at any time. In my reading, I want blue skies, sunshine and clean conversation.

    I’m in my 50s, by the way. 🙂

  • Tricia

    PS.

    You are right, of course, that there are degrees of ‘bad language’. Personally, ‘hell’, ‘damn’, ‘heck’, ‘darn’ and ‘gosh’ don’t worry me at all ~ but ‘crap’ does. It’s the stronger and / or uglier words that I don’t want to hear.

    I actually heard about a lady who considered ‘Good Heavens!’ to be unacceptable 🙂

  • Jake Eagleshield

    Constant cursing,such dropping an “F” bomb every third word,is only a display of ignorance,and a lack of respect for those around you,especially when done in public. You see it from kids as young as ten years old,every day. Wen a person is not intelligent enough to express themselves without using profanity,it is not only very sad,it is pathetic. When adults do it,it is even more pathetic. It means they have learned nothing. Only very stupid people must constantly swear.

  • Jack

    I write a lot. One of my characters is ex military. He uses a lot of bad language, and so do the other characters, because that’s how my universe works.

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