What the Hell Do You Do About Profanity?
What place, if any, does profanity have in writing? There are as many different answers as there are types of writing.
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.
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.