Gratuitous Profanity in Literature

We no longer expect any god to strike down our enemy just because we spoke an oath or a curse. God is no longer expected to enforce truthful answers from someone who swears to say the truth. Modern society is no longer reluctant to publicly discuss what St. Paul calls “the less honorable members of our bodies”, nor is society still prudish about various body functions. Such words no longer even have much shock value. Then why do people swear? Does swearing improve communications? Does swearing, expletives or the use of vulgar words improve the quality of what is said or written?

Some of my teachers claimed that the use of profanity is a symptom of a poor vocabulary, but today, even well educated men and women are inserting vulgar words. People frequently use “dirty words” as adjectives or adverbs. Somehow my students felt free to rattle off sentence after sentence filled with all kinds of expletives and profanities, but if I, as a teacher, were to utter one such word, they immediately acted like their ears were on fire.

What does the speaker mean when he or she says, “Where did you get that @^%$ (you supply your favorite word) shirt?” Does the expletive tell the listener that the shirt is very good or very bad? Usually the expletive can be interpreted either way. So often the speaker is simply inserting the word out of habbit, or is trying to copy their peers. Had I been a language arts teacher rather than a math and science teacher, I probably would have had students writing a paragraph of dialogue and then strike out every expletive and profanity. I suspect that the meaning of few paragraphs would change. I believe that the average speaker is only inserting “cool” words without regard to the meaning of what is being said.

Thus a purist would say that profanity has no place in literature, and indeed, for years it did not. Then writers like Hemingway discovered that leaving profanity out of certain lines of dialogue made the character less valid. Thus in For Whom the Bells Toll, Hemingway has one of the Spanish rebels saying, “F**k. You want to know why I fired my f**king rifle? I saw that f**king rabit over there so I shot it.”

Once the gate is open, it is difficult to keep the horses in the corral. Now much of modern dialogue includes profanities and expletives, each spelled out fully. Such words are even creeping into prose. Occasionally context gives the reader a clue how to define that adjective, but usually the expletives and profanities used as adjectives or adverbs are simply empty words without meaning.

This opens the question, of how much profanity should a writer include in his or her manuscript? My opinion is that the only place where profanity should be allowed is in dialogue, and only used in dialogue when the profanity tells us something important about the character who is speaking. Certainly the thug who is snatching a purse is not in character if he says, “Please, ma’am, may I be allowed to carry off your purse?” any more than his victim, a the wife of a preacher, would be in character if she replied, “You fucking bastard. Keep your God damn mits off of my mother-fucking purse.”

There will be those who argue that their writing should reflect life, and living people now use “dirty words”. Language arts teachers keep telling me it is important to teach literature because literature imparts values. If that is the case, what values are modern writers imparting when they use profanity gratuitously?

As you can see from the earlier paragraph, I can sling filth with the best of them, but I prefer not to. I think that we, as writers, need to carefully analyze our characters. How much profanity is really needed in this character’s dialogue? Does the choice of words indicate a profession, upbringing or geographic dialect? Is it needed to show the character’s emotional profile. I suppose a case can be made that some profanity can be used to help define a character. On the other hand, I can make a case that such profanity should be minimized. Often there are other ways to define a character. Thus not every adjective and adverb needs to be “off color”. In fact, I have experimented with the use of milder expletives as a substitute for what the character would actually say. For example, I figure a hardened bank robber would liberally salt his speech with some pretty ripe language. I was writing a short story about bank robbers. Sure I could have used realistic expletives, but rather than lower myself to writing a filthy dialogue, I substituted milder and softer expletives for what I am sure the real character would say. I had him saying a lot of hell and damn. When he got really angry, he said, “Hell’s bells.” Perhaps not totally realistic, but I am sure the reader got a valid picture of this character. Because other information in the story well defined the characters, I think the technique worked in that story, but it might not work in other stories. Nevertheless, I always try to minimize profanity.

As writers, shall we allow the language of our stories fall into the gutter along with the current verbal usage of the English Language? I think not. While we are trying to introduce some realism into our writing, I think we need to set a few standards. I wish we could keep profanity completely out of literature, but since we can not, we need to minimize the use of those words that degrade the written word.


About Reynold Conger

Reynold Conger is a retired scientist, engineer and teacher. Now writing fiction. His books are CHASED ACROSS AUSTRALIA, MY KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR and REDUCING MEDICAL COSTS (AT THE COST OF HEALTH). He has also started a series of novelas called THE RICHARD TRACY SERIES. Residence: New Mexico, USA Hobbies: gardening, animals and running. website
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7 Responses to Gratuitous Profanity in Literature

  1. Arlee Bird says:

    Very well said. I am in total agreement.

    Tossing It Out


  2. Pingback: Does Profanity Add Quality to Writing? | Reynold Conger Wouldn't Write if It Were Not Fun

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