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Friday, December 7, 2012

When Is Profanity Necessary in Writing?

Cartoon of a person waving fist
Cartoon of a person waving fist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 Not in this House!

        In the early 1970's when I was still in college, my dad found a book that I had purchased at the University of Tennessee bookstore and being greatly offended by that book he promptly tore it to shreds, leaving the pieces strewn about our rec room so I would be sure to find them.  That book, The Anatomy of Dirty Words by Edward Sagarin, was a scholarly examination of the meanings, origins, and etymology of various words that are typically considered to be profane, obscene, or unacceptable.

         Profanity was necessary in this book because the words were the subject matter.  What I learned from the book in the short time I was able to access it is that dirty words are just words that in many cases had perfectly legitimate beginnings in English or another language and over time had become offensive in one way or another.  The words are only words, but the associations can arouse strong feelings in others.  The offense might stem from the way the words are spoken or in the context they are used.  They have become words that are intended to shock, embarrass, or anger others.

         I am probably a bit more open-minded than my father was, but I also went through that era of rebellion and radical change where profanity came more into common use in the arts, media, and everyday conversation.  Not that I approve of this usage.  I don't blush when I hear offensive language, but I don't encourage it either and rarely use it in my own speaking or writing.  Frankly, my dear reader, I don't think it's necessary in most cases.

Do You Want to Talk Dirty?

         In a recent Tossing It Out guest post,  Profanity: Where Do You Draw the Line?, Bridget Straub discussed how she approaches this issue in her writing and in her life.  The ensuing conversation in the comment section offered some interesting and radically different points of view.  As promised in those comments I am here with my thoughts on the use of offensive language in writing.

         I avoid most use of language that I deem offensive because I think there can be better ways of saying things.   Personally, I find profanity to be very distracting, often coming across as an author's attempt to be edgy, gritty, or "realistic".   But is this worth the possibility of losing a potential portion of a reading audience?  And is a larger sector of audience going to be gained because an author uses profanity.   To my thinking, excellent writing can convey grittiness and realistic characters in such a way that the fact there is no profanity would go unnoticed to the average reader.

          In my opinion the reader who is looking for obscenity in writing and titillated by it is puerile and unsophisticated.   They are not looking for literature, but just dirty writing.   Quality writing should not stoop to that level in hopes of better suiting it to modern tastes.   Writers who are trying to deliver that experience are not being especially creative or original.

Let's Look for the Nasty Parts

          An example from cinema that I always think of is the Oliver Stone Viet Nam film Platoon.  When I first saw this in the theater I was so distracted by the use of profanity in the film that this aspect was what I remembered most.  I disliked the film after that first viewing.  Some time later I saw the film again on television in a censored version where the most obscene things were the commercial breaks.  Without the distraction of profanity I was able to pay more attention to the characters and thematic elements of the story. I enjoyed the film much more in this second viewing.   I realized that the profanity had hindered in many ways and helped in virtually none.

        In literature I will cite Catcher in the Rye for two aspects of the use of profanity.  Firstly I was annoyed and offended by the ongoing using of the Lord's name in vain by Holden Caulfield.  There is some suggestion that Holden's casual use of "goddam" throughout the book helps establish his character, but I would argue that there are plenty of other things that the character says and does to show his rebellious and belligerent spirit.

         The second use of profanity in Catcher in the Rye is probably necessary because it is an integral part of the story and it is not used in a gratuitous way.  When Holden discovers the "Fuck You" graffiti scrawled on the walls he is shocked and angry because of the possibility of children seeing the words that are offensive even to him.  Since the theme of the book has to do with protecting the innocence of childhood, the shock of seeing the words symbolizes the loss of that innocence.   The argument that could be made as justification for Holden's use of profanity is that it illustrates the same kind of phoniness that he disdains in other people.  Profanity is in a sense central to the theme of the novel.

        However, in nearly every other case of profanity used in written work, that profanity is unneeded.  I will probably always shy away from the use of offensive language because I strongly feel that there are other ways to deal with what an author is trying to convey by using it.   I won't commit myself to this, but this is my intent as I see it now.

          How else can a writer depict bad people without using bad words?   Do you notice when obscene language is not used for characters who might use it in real life?   Do you miss the language when it's not there?   Would you like to hear offensive language used regularly in network television programming?  If so, why?

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  1. There are certainly milder words that can be used.
    I don't mind language where it fits the character, and I am more forgiving with movies than with books. However, excessive use will bother me. Some people use it because they can't think of a more intelligent way to get their point across.
    I don't use much language in real life, and I never take the Lord's name in vain. (Won't even listen to music that does that.)
    I think unless there is a good reason, placing a lot of language in a book "just because" will alienate more readers than attract. The strongest word in my books is "damn" and from the response to them, people appreciate the lack of strong language.

  2. In my YA MS I'm working on, there is profanity. It's certainly not excessive, but it's there. My use of profanity is a reflection of my characters' environment and age group, not so much whether they are "good" or "bad." That said, I'm much more ladylike than my characters are. =)

  3. I don't miss the language! I won't even read a book with the F word. There are so many better ways to express feelings, even anger, without resorting to a string of cuss words.

    My books are all relatively clean. Yes some young people have potty mouths, but I've been around enough teens to know that not all of them talk that way. And I didn't want to write something I'd be ashamed of anyone reading when it came to the language.

  4. This is a very interesting article and quite thought provoking. I hadn't really considered my view on profanity.
    My writing has none in it. In a recent blog post that I wrote I wanted to quote an article and link it. I chose part of the article that had no profanity and put a language warning on the link. I hadn't thought about why. Is it my sensitivity to it or my thoughts on other people's?
    On reflection I think I put a warning on that post because I noticed the profanity. Therefore it wasn't used well. I read a lot and I know that some of the authors I read will use profanities. If I don't notice it then either it is in keeping with the story or the character being portrayed.
    Thanks for the article.

  5. Personally, I don't like profanity but believe if you're going to use it outside of writing...use it to make a point if you must.

    As for writing,...well working on a new piece. The main MC's totally disapprove of foul language. A Baptist Grandma and a New Age-Hippie Grandma. However, some of the other characters use poor grammar and naughty words. So what I'm trying to do is break up the offenders throughout the story so no one is constantly smacked in the face with the poor language.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  6. Wise is the author or screenplay writer who uses profanity for the sake of keeping the language of a character true, and does so that it doesn't stick out like a sore %^(*&!@!!. Um, thumb.

  7. Just another point, sorry, I think very slowly.
    The word 'tossing'has an obscene meaning in British English. I understand that 'Fanny' is quite accepted in the US but may offend some British readers of American literature. A fag in the UK is a short word for a cigarette.
    Also words change meanings. Look at the word 'gay' for example.
    There are probably more examples of cross cultural or across tie meaning differences.
    I wonder how we can ensure that no one in any culture or at any tile would find our writing offensive. As you have said, these are only words that at one time had a legitimate use.
    I now wonder if I was truthful when I said my book had no profanities in it. I should have said - for the average British English reader in the year 2012 this book had no profanities.

  8. We all know bad language exists and we as parents try to instill in our offsprings that these words don't sound nice but when they get to adults themselves they choose what road to take.
    As for television there is always the remote to turn off an offending word programme.
    I myself don't use such language buit that's my choice.

    Enjoy your week-end.

  9. One of my old writing teachers encouraged us to make up curses for our characters. Also, less is more. One strategically-placed profanity might be a smart thing, while 3 or 4 are way too many.

  10. Unless it's really repetitive or particularly vulgar, I barely take notice. I just skim past and keep on reading. I'd have to go back and search for the cusses, they have that little impact on me.
    But, I know, for instance, all the women in my bible study, won't even pick up a book, if they know it contains cusses in it.

  11. Alex -- The strategic use of a profanity is far more effective than merely peppering the dialog with an abundance of it. I think you handled it the correct way in your books.

    Cynthia -- The key is not so much that profanity has been used, but how it has been used.

    L.Diane-- I think many writers use the profanity just because they think it's expected, but I don't think the average reader would even notice if these words were excised from the work unless it were integral as in Catcher in the Rye.

    Kerry -- I think you are correct that profanity use is not as noticeable if it skillfully incorporated in the work, but that is possibly also a statement about our acceptance of profanity in general use in language.


  12. Shelly -- When anything is overused it can become rather boring.

    Em -- But I would say that greater skill and creativity is shown by the writer who can convey what profanity would do, but not use the profanity to do it. It's been done and prior to the 70's was done skillfully many time because that's what was more acceptable.

    Kerry -- This is an excellent point which further illustrates that words are merely words but context can make a huge difference. Also, as you say meanings can evolve. This can be so frustrating, but what can one do. This is another blog post topic that I have considered since it is related to the topic of profanity, but not exactly the same. Thanks for the great contribution to the conversation.

    Yvonne -- You are of an era of better upbringing as far as polite and civil use of language. Now we hear so much badly used language and obscene words all around us that it is proliferating and becoming a sad part of society. I don't think language is evolving for the better.

    Catherine -- The show not tell adage might fit well here. It's an easy out to just insert a curse word to tell the reader that a character is angry, but more creative to find a way to show us by demonstrating the anger.

    Jaybird -- We as readers and consumers of entertainment have become more desensitized to profanity. Moderation is best if one is going to use the profanity, but the repetition becomes tedious.


  13. I think that a book full of profanity seems lazy, but the odd swear word hear and there in dialogue can seem very natural. Especially at an emotional time. I think my character says the f word twice, in two consecutive sentences, and it suits her and the situation to use it. The article made me think back, and consider its presence, but I want it there. In the real world people swear, not all, but a lot.

    However, in prose, I don't really think it has a place. That's the writer swearing, not the character.

  14. i certainly feel the "bad" words are necessary in a lot of characters and situations----but it's funny, i was looking through some old stuff yesterday when i found some of my old writings---i would blush now for anyone to read them and even thought of destroying them :)

  15. Great topic. What I find most pleasant in the books I read is when it says something like, "Muttering profanity, he..." It shows that the character uses those words, but we don't need to hear them. I find that a good compromise.
    In my own speech, I will admit that I do sometimes let a word fly, it can be very therapeutic, for me. When I feel like I have very little control over what is happening to me (chronic illness for example) the one thing I CAN control is what comes out of my mouth, but I watch who I'm with and don't do it often.
    Great topic, Lee.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  16. There are many ways descriptive words can be used to define a "bad" character without offensive language.

    No. I find it more enjoyable when "bad language" is not used. I know how policeman, military men, construction workers, and perverts talk. I have been around all of them.


  17. I love this post so much Lee and honestly I agree with the core points you make. I think that swearing in a book for the sake of swearing is poor writing but to use it perhaps to make a certain character seem rough around the edges or something or to set a dark tone might be fine. As a general rule I'd leave out all swearing in my blogs when I can because I'd hate to offend somebody but I don't really have anything against it personally.

    Great post buddy, I'd love to have read that book on the anatomy of bad language myself!

  18. Well, this has certainly made me think more about the subject. Thinking about it, I don't think I use profanity too readily...I also think it can sound really forced, and I sometimes struggle enough to make dialogue sound (read) natural and realistic.
    I think I am more likely to use profanity in certain situations- firstly a character facing massive shock, anger, fear, or pain. I swear too much, and I'm trying not to now, but there is nothing that can stop me from yelping out a bad word when my toe meets the skirting board :P Similarly, in situations of high stress, people sometimes do let loose a few naughty words...the trick, I suppose, is to make it sound natural.
    Secondly, I might use it to indicate coarsness, but not usually "badness" (that is lazy). I might have a character who just happens to be very coarse, and their language may well reflect on that. I may also use it to indicate lack of spite of my own admission that I swear too much, I find excessice profanity to be a sign of poor vocabulary among other things. If I had a villain swear, it would be in calm, smooth manner, with the words being used rarely. If I had a bad-tempered oaf, I might be more inclined to slip in excessive profanity. I guess it depends on how you use it and when.

  19. Michelle-- In the author's voice I think it's an absolute no-no. Not an author I want to read. I tend to stay away from most blogs that use this kind of language.

    Lynn -- But are the "bad words" really necessary? Or would some other device work just as well or better?

    Tina -- Letting us know that an action was done without going into the details is adequate for me.

    Gregg-- I agree. Tough characters in older movies come across well. We experience the hard-boiled edge to them without the profanity. A lot of tough characters in the movies of the past 40 years or so merely come across as crude and unlikable.

    Yeamie-- I looked up the Anatomy book on line and it seems to be out of print. You might find it in a library though. As I recall it's more like a dictionary than an explanatory book, but it does provide some very interesting information.


  20. Laura -- Excellent comment. I like your reference to "coarseness"--good depiction. I see swearing and use of crude language much like smoking or any bad habit. It's often picked up at a younger age and becomes so ingrained that it becomes part of a character. I think an act or line of dialog should have purpose. Writers who commonly use this device of offensive dialog might want to try scenes where these parts are deleted or substituted with something else. If doing this doesn't seem to ever work well for them then perhaps they need to look within themselves to figure out why the obscenity is so important to them as a writer and a person. Has the expression of the profanity made the world a better place?


  21. I'm mostly opposed to offensive language in literature and films.

    Creatively describing the situation in literature, or excellent acting technique in portraying the emotion in film (in most cases) is as effective as using off-color language.

    Don't get me wrong, I believe there are some exceptions to this, but I think all too often an easier path is taken.

  22. People who are offended by words are going to be offended by them in any context. Even if the swearing suits the character you are basically suggesting it's all right to be offended because the character is offensive, but that is a gross exaggeration. Lots of people swear who aren't bad people. Swearing doesn't signify a certain kind of person unless you imply it. and in those cases the implication is based on cliche.

    The idea a sailor swearing is okay but a 13 year old girl not is nonsense.

    I'm not saying you have to make teenagers swear, but suggesting one type of swearing is justifiable and another blasphemous is more to do with individual preferences than an inherent value within particular words.

    It's up to the writer to decide what they feel is true to their vision, and it's up to the reader to decide if they want to expose themselves to it. I don't think there's any point in either group trying to persuade the other of what's right or wrong.

    That's where it gets sticky. Where people decide to censor or prohibit based on protecting others. My feeling is if I find something offensive I'll avoid it. But trying to stop it from existing is neither practical nor a good use of anyone's time.


  23. I don't have time, right now, to really respond to this, but I will say, in a general sense, in the places I choose to include swearing in anything I write there is a greater purpose to it than just including the swearing. Even if it's just to show how out of depth the character feels at that moment.

  24. No matter how much or how little I try to keep profanity at a minimum in my work, particularly my screenplays, it usually tends to creep back up into the project. I wonder if it's because actors may be so comfortable with the one or two words in the script that they take the liberty to just insert more profane language into the scenes....which makes it difficult for me to get my films on non-cable television channels.

    To answer your questions, I think that a writer can depict bad people by describing actions that readers would consider "bad." As the saying goes...actions speak louder, anyway! No, I don't typically notice when obscene language is not used for characters who might use it and I don't miss the language when it's not there. Depending on the story or what is going on between the characters, I just go with the flow of how the writer wrote it.

    I would not mind hearing offensive language used regularly in network television....only if it's in a scene where it would seem appropriate. If there is a kidnapping scene on CSI, for expample, and the parents confront the suspect on the street or at a police station, chances are that profanity would be spoken if the situation occurred in real life, so it would make sense for it to be used on certain network programs.

    Do I think it's necessary? No. Do I think that the nature of some television programs could benefit from it? all depends on the context of what's going on in the scene. I bet that if a show like Law & Order: SVU was on HBO instead of NBC, many of the stories and situations on that show would depict more realistic language than it currently does due to censorship rules.

  25. Paula -- You and I see eye to eye on this I think.

    Mood -- I would not be a strong advocate for censorship, but I do question the motivation of the writer who uses offensive language. Why are they willing to turn off a certain segment of readership in using crass language. Or is the writer trying to convert others to a certain level of immorality? Is morality an issue when we consider profanity? I can understand a word uttered in certain highly emotionally charged instances and that use can have impact. But what is the purpose of profanity as a normal part of speech where the naughty words flow freely? What is the purpose of using this language and does it make the world a better place?

    Andrew -- Your statement seems to answer some of the questions I just posed to Mood.

    Nicole-- But how would TV programs or any other form of expression benefit from using profanity? There is a recurrent theme in my questioning here: Why does the swearing, profanity, and offensiveness need to be present at all other than possibly used sparingly to drive a point? I think there was a decent and logical reason to place limitations on what can be presented in certain public forums and to certain age groups. I need to be convinced that there is a good purpose to any use of offensive language before I feel that I can offer a defense for it in artistic expression.


  26. I'm not a fan. I don't like to hear it, don't like to read it, don't like to watch movies with it. Of course, I do to a certain extent, but limited. I've written made up curse words in books, but don't think I've ever written a real one. Never like the Lord's name taken in vain. Also, certain curse words make me cringe.

  27. Most of what I have to say on this topic I said in the last post about profanity. But I'll add just a couple of things so I'm a part of the conversation:

    I am not utterly opposed to using a profane word here and there in a story, if the situation calls for it and the character would naturally say it. But... I prefer to keep it at a bare minimum (which actually enhances the effectiveness of each swear word) and there are certain expressions I will NOT use under ANY circumstances...

    First and foremost, taking The Lord's name in vain is out of the question! If I have a character who does not respect The Lord, I'll find some other way of getting that across.

    Also, I never ever say, and would never ever write the "M.F." word. Yes, I might drop a rare F-bomb, but NEVER with MOTHER before it. Totally uncalled for 100% of the time.

    Take a movie like Sam Peckinpah's 'THE WILD BUNCH' (1969). Those characters in that movie are as rough-hewn and sharp-edged as any you'll find in all of Hollywood filmdom. You watch that movie and there is NO QUESTION in your mind what sort of men they are.

    And yet the F-word is not heard even once in that entire movie. Neither is the S-word. I know that "damn", "bitch" and "sons-of-bitches" are said, and probably "hell" too, although I can't immediately recall "hell" being used.

    But if Peckinpah and Waylon Green could write a screenplay about men as rugged and untamed as the Wild Bunch without using any of the really A-list profanity, then any truly skilled writer ought to be able to do the same. (Believe me, the Wild Bunch characters are quite believable without any major profanity - which is never even missed by the viewers.)


    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  28. I am, personally, not the biggest fan of profanity. In examining my own use of profanity, I found I use it more in the company of familiars while upset or disturbed by something.

    In reading, I'm not a fan of its use for shock value any more than I'm interested in a shock jock saying something ridiculous to shock listeners and hope to get others interested in listening because of its ridiculousness.

    But profanity is a part of some things in life and occurs in some literature because it is a part of the story or a particular character's nature. It is possible to try and reword moments that profanity would be used but if it is not true to the character, then how can it really be written?

    I make a conscience decision to read things that please me, such as some paranormal, urban fantasy, dystopian, high fantasy and steampunk and avoid things that do not. If it has a deluge of profanity in it that does not add to anything, it'll be a DNF for me.

  29. Ciara -- A writer can widen their audience by avoiding profanity and if the writing is excellent the lack of profanity is unlikely to be an issue even to those who expect it.

    StMc-- Great point about The Wild Bunch. Now I'll have to watch it again to pay closer attention to see what words are used. Bogart, Cagney, and other tough guys of older filmdom came across as plenty tough without having to utter anything close to an obscenity. The offending words are not necessary to pull off the illusion of toughness, evil, or what have you.

    Angela --Using obscenity for shock value has been diminished by overuse in the various media and in everyday conversation. If the intent is to shock than I think that is a display of immaturity. If the presence of obscenity is intended to create realism, then...well see my some of my previous comment responses. I believe the writer is a creator of illusion--the magic is in the creative use of words.


  30. Random trivia time: those typographical symbols that convey curse words (like @#$%) -- those are called "nittles." There's actually a word for them.

    Anyway, writing-wise, you have to use whatever words need to be used to tell the story that needs to be told. If you're writing a fictional character who's a streetwise gangbanger, he can't go around saying "fiddlesticks."

  31. I don't use much profanity in my writing because I agree that it is not always necessary. I don't like to hear it continuously throughout a text. Too much of it is distracting. I do believe occasionally if it is to establish a character that one or two words could be inserted when the emotion is there and if it is really necessary; I do try to be realistic, but I agree with you that there are other ways that we can establish character. So, I use it sparingly. And as far as TV, these days it is used way too much, esp when every 5 secs there occurs a string of profane words.

  32. In some ways profanity has lost it's meaning completely. I was at church one day and could hear someone right outside swearing his butt off. I hurried out expecting to see acrazed homelss guy or a somebody who had missed his meds for s few days. I mean the obscenities where flying right and left. "You Mother F-er you're F-ing lying to me B*itch.." But no, it was just a teen on the phone talking to his friend. I said, "Dude, you're on the steps of a church." He was very apologetic and said, "F*ck man. I'm sorry."Then he told his buddy on the phone, "I gotta jump man. I'm in front of a Mother f-ing church."

  33. This led to some really interesting responses! Personally I have no problem with profanity in fiction. These words exist, and so do people who use them. I'm not going to avoid an author's work solely for the sake of my (not very) delicate sensibilities.

  34. Kelly -- Nittles are fine for comic strips, but I hope no serious writer uses them.

    Lena -- I don't watch much TV. I find much of the programming to be obscene without using any obscenities.

    Rick -- A sad tale of our society today. You are right about profanity losing it's impact. What will we do next?

    Ash -- Your view on this is fairly common, which is why profanity is so prevalent. I'd like to know why obscene language is something that some people "have no problem with" and others do. Does it have a lot to do with age, societal background, upbringing, secular morality. These are all points that I wonder about.


  35. Sadly, the use of profanity is so common that it's as natural to some people as saying "How are you?" I haven't had the need to use it in my writing, and I get frustrated when words occasionally slip out when I'm angry. Between movies, music, books and TV overuse of expletives just encourages lack of creativity. Thanks for sharing your great thoughts on this Lee!

  36. Finally--someone who speaks my language!! Thanks!!!

  37. I'd have to agree with Mood on this one and believe you simply cannot please everyone and shouldn't try. If a writer feels profanity is a necessary part of how they want their story expressed, then it should be included. Writing in an attempt to avoid offending anyone is a complete waste of time. Ultimately, it's the reader that will decide if they want to continue reading or not.

  38. Great topic Lee! I really don't mind swearing at all, but I don't like it when it's excessive and just swearing for the sake of swearing. I can do my fair share of it at times,(not proud of that) although I don't as a rule swear a lot.
    Our Canadian tv channels, CBC and the like, don't regularly take the 'bad' words out of movies they air and that's how I like is really frustrating for me, (and most of the people I know) to watch a movie on an American network, because sometimes the 'bleeps', or the dubbing in of 'heck' or 'dang' for stronger words sounds very fake and almost comical. The way I see it, that's way a lot of people really speak,and, it doesn't necessarily mean they are 'bad' characters, or low lifes, although I do think it can indicate a lack of education.
    Words do change meanings, as someone mentioned, and different cultures find different words offensive...I am fascinated by the origin of swear words and why exactly they are offensive...I don't believe in 'the lord' I personally am not offended by any religious based swearing..I guess I agree with George Carlin, when he said that words cannot in and of themselves be 'bad'...."There are no 'bad' words..what we have is, bad thoughts, bad intentions....and words."
    I agree with the commenter above, it is a waste of time to try to not offend anyone...sometimes no matter what you do, someone somewhere is going to be offended, it can't be avoided...write for yourself, and have your characters speak in a way that is organic to them...that's what I think anyways. 'Catcher in the Rye' is one of my favourite books. Love Salinger!
    It is interesting that Hitler was a non smoking, vegetarian who was offended by 'bad' language...but mass murder on an unprecedented level was fine by him...just goes to show that not everyone who is offended by certain language is a good person.
    Great post Lee!

  39. All of your characters must be goody two-shoes.

  40. Julie -- Thanks and I agree with you.

    Steve - Golly gee, Steve, thanks. You are invited to actually leave a comment on my blog next time.

    Judy/G -- It is an English speaking blog, yes, and I welcome you back anytime.

    Elise -- Yes, we are free to write as we choose and hope for the audience we are trying to target. But I still wonder why a writer would feel that profanity would be necessary to tell their story. What the hell kind of story would that be anyhow?

    Eve -- Great comment. I don't think a person's language is necessarily an indicator of how good or bad they are. One of my dearest friends ever (may he rest in peace) had one of the foulest mouths of anyone I ever knew. He had a lot of issues with his parents and plenty of other things so I think that created a rebellious spirit within him which was partly expressed through his language. His language sometimes made me cringe, but he had an inherent goodness and a kindness that made him much loved by just about everyone. "Bad" language is just not something I want to encourage because I don't see where it adds to the betterment of the world.

    Charles -- Many writers have written about very foul people without putting obscenities in their mouths. I think of Flannery O'Connor. Some of her characters were utterly depraved and come across very believable without an utterance of profanity. Actions can speak much more effectively than dialog.


  41. Well there's a thing. I was constructing this brilliant contribution and got called away. Didn't realise I left my footprints behind. Sorry about that. As for obscenity in writing,the condensed version of what I was going to say is - absolutely. It your character is Jesus Christ it would be absurd but if the character had an appropriate case of tourette syndrome it would be equally absurd not to. The degree used by the author lies between those two extremes.

  42. Just realised there is more than one Steve on the planet and you were not referring to me. If any of this makes sense - let me know what I am talking about!

  43. S.K.(Steve)--I guess you are referring to my tongue-in-cheek aside to Steve the Inviter. I see what you're saying. My argument is that what a Christ-like character might say would have value in the saying and each word could be like gold, to be treasured and admired. The character on the other extreme on the other hand might spew words that are not worth the keeping and perhaps not worth repeating. Every sordid detail of what a character says and does is usually not a worthwhile realm to delve into. Show the reader the badness, but don't rub our noses in the dirtier parts of it.


  44. Lee, what you say about Flannery O' Connor is true. But then in her day, such bad language was more censored. I really prefer a certain amount of realness in a story, if it's called for. It's true not everything needs an expletive to be edgy.

  45. Fascinating look at language and our interpretation of offensive words. Also enjoyed your break down of Cather in the Rye, are you also an English teacher? I feel like I'm back in high school. I don't use it often and never use it in my writing. I too feel there are better ways to express edginess or realism. As far as hearing it, I'm desensitized. But if every other word is profane without any meaning, that's just a waste of time.

  46. Charles -- And part of the point I'm trying to make is that in pre-1970's mainstream literature and film the writers were still able to convey realism without directly using an expletives. Even if O'Connor had lived in a day when use of expletives was prevalent and still had her Roman Catholic values I wonder if she would have avoided using the language?

    Buck-- No, not an English teacher, but I started out majoring in English when I was in college. You make a good point about the prevalent use of profanity leading to desensitization. This could eventually lead to problems of trying to create impact in dialog. If the profanity no longer shocks, then what do people say? Will there be new expletives?


  47. If profanity is a huge part of the script, then the writing is weak (to me). I put the book down.

  48. There are many other avenues to portray a character negatively than to use profanity. They can mock or show irreverence towards tragedy or disability, they can act callously or antagonistically, or even with apathy under certain circumstances. There are many things you can say that cut deeper than an f-bomb. The worst KKK publications are objectionable for many reasons before any bad words.

    Still, I give license to swearing where it's made work. On The Wire, swearing is a way of life, and I can't remember it ever being a question of necessity. When it was excessive, it was because a character was being excessive. The show was reproducing profane patterns of speech in every day life in Baltimore. It actually made every other show on television seem unrealistic because characters were so f**king familiar in the way they talked.

  49. Susan -- I agree that the swearing reveals a weakness in the writing. I might keep reading or watching, but my opinion is shaped greatly by the offense I have to endure.

    John --Idea and actions can say far more than words in dialog can convey. We cannot judge character exclusively by language. If it works then I'll deal with the offensive language. An example that comes to me is the character played by Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet--the string of expletives he unleashes reveals a further depraved side of him that goes beyond his actions. The language here is very appropriate. I think the words on paper don't have the same effect as seeing them spoken. In writing I question just about every instance of the use of profanity. I'm not sure if you are referring to a play or what, but that too could be a case where the offensive dialog is illustrative of real life. Another on screen example might be a documentary about prison or gangs--if it's real then that's the way it is.


  50. I don't find language offensive. It is a strange concept to me. What I find offensive in writing is the poor use of language and a lazy approach to finding the most effective words.

  51. Christina -- I think the consideration that writers should make is that there are still many people who are offended by certain words. In many cases the usage of certain words is useless and superfluous and that to me is poor use of language. Why use the lazy excuse that we are making the dialog more realistic when we can find other ways to get a point across?



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