Does Profanity Add Quality to Writing?


Early in this blog, I wrote a post about the use of profanity in literature. I am not ashamed to be against unlimited use of profanity. In my own writing, I severely limit the use of profanity to dialogue and only use it where it is absolutely necessary to correctly flesh out the character. Even then, I strive to tone down some of the more abrasive words. I do this because I do not think profanity adds anything to literature. There has also been recent research that suggests that TV profanity my increase aggressive behavior in teens.

As a member of an on-line writer’s group, I am currently involved in a line about favorite and disliked words. It is interesting to see what people like and dislike. One young writer expressed an affinity for the word “fuck”. Among other things, he likes it because he can use it for almost all parts of speech. Others chimed in in support of the use of profanity. Some claimed that they could not write a book about the military without the use of some very strong language.

I took the position that a writer can justify the use of profanity in dialogue, but that profanity has no place in the narrative. I was called a prude, but that is all right. I have my principles. This discussion of profanity was a departure from the intent of the thread, so I restrained myself from arguing further.

The narrative of a story is the prose that supports the dialogue. What need is there for profanity? The author can use “respectable” words and get the point across. Many authors use profanity as adjectives and adverbs to amplify a noun. This causes two problems. Is the profane word chosen, the only adjective that works for the story? For that matter, is it the best adjective or adverb to use? I contend that profanity adds nothing to narrative. The second problem is the exact meaning of the swear word or explicative. I will discuss this at length in a later paragraph, but modern young people use profanity so freely, that the meanings of the words have become diluted. Again the profanity detracts from rather adds to the narrative.

Dialogue is where a good case can be made for the use of profanity, but again, I am not sure it always adds to the quality of the story. The author is putting words in the mouth of the character. Dialogue often helps convey the background of the character and the setting. It would be out of character for a pastor to swear, and likewise one is not surprised to hear criminals, military, etc. use profanity. Some authors feel they can not write authentic dialogue without profanity. The question is, do they really need to write the exact words the character would use?

Bear in mind that there was a time when profanity was not used at all in literature. Gone With the Wind, contains nothing stronger than a few “damns”, and I suspect that shocked some readers at the time. Hemingway wrote his stories about the first world war with nothing stronger than an occasional “hell” or “damn”. When I was in College, we read Hemingway’s For whom the Bell Tolls. This is a story about the Spanish Civil War. In For whom the Bell Tolls, one of the rebel soldiers has a particularly foul mouth. Hemingway used profanity to flesh out the character of this uncultured, ignorant soldier. At one point the soldier is dressed down by an officer because he fired his rifle at a rabbit while on sentry duty. While trying to justify his actions the soldier uses lots of profanity, but in that day, Hemingway did not dare write out the words. Rather, he used **** to replace each swear word. Even that shocked members of polite society, but it worked. The reader could imagine the soldier using what ever word the reader thought best.

While I was in college, Love Story was published. Both hero and heroine swore frequently. The author was trying to reflect that swearing on the increase among the college crowd. While the profanity was mild compared to what high school and college students use today, Love Story did shock many readers. My great aunt reviewed Love Story for her book club, and told me, “It is a great book, but my, such language.” Tropic of Capricorn, released about the same time, was a bit more crude in the profanity used, but was still mild by modern standards.

On the other hand, there are modern authors who use little or no profanity in the dialogue even when they write thrillers and other action type books. Ken Follett writes gripping historical fiction about World War II. Occasionally a tough German soldier or a Danish resistance fighter will say a mild hell, damn or shit but nothing stronger. Janice Cantore writes crime novels, police procedurals with squeaky clean dialogue. As a retired police officer, she knows the language used by criminals and officers. To stimulate the readers’ imaginations, she will occasionally note in the narrative that a character is swearing but she does not put swear words on paper.

Consider also what a character means by the use of a swear word. While I was teaching high school, some of my students thought it was cool to use the word “fuck” and its derivatives. Some had trouble saying a sentence longer than four words without using the word. In our modern era, “fuck” and many other common swear words have been overused to the point that their meaning has become diluted if not lost. The same word is used to express both something wonderful such as a couple’s extreme act of pleasure and love and also to express brutal hurt and destruction comparable to rape. I have heard students say, “That fucking car,” when their car breaks down, and also say, “What a fucking car,” when they see a fancy sports car drive past. I have also heard students insert the word for no particular reason at all. We are advised by our writing coaches and our editors to eliminate any word from our manuscripts that is not necessary. Perhaps we need to eliminate needless profanity.

I can hear some writers objecting. “But that is the way that type of character talks in real life.” Of course, we observe real life, but we are writing fiction. We are not quoting anyone. I do not have a reference at hand to link to, but writing coaches tell us the best dialogue is not written exactly the way people talk. Whether intentionally or not, we do edit our characters’ dialogue for brevity and clarity. Really good authors can portray their characters’ personalities and convey what the character says without the use of profanity.

The challenge to us as writers is to see how good a book we can write while minimizing or eliminating profanity. I, for one, think it can be done. My goal is to eventually write totally free of profanities.

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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 www.ReynoldConger.com
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