Tuesday, February 18, 2014

F You! Profanity in Modern Communication

Swearing - good or bad?  I guess that depends on context, where it occurs, and how often.

How much profanity is too much? Like accents, a little can go a long way.  This technique was demonstrated in the film version of The Hunt for Red October. Two characters spoke Russian for several lines and the viewer read subtitles. Then the dialogue switched: the viewer heard English but knew the two characters were still speaking Russian.  A writer can heavily use profanity initially to demonstrate one aspect of a character and then doesn't need to include it in every sentence thereafter. The reader gets the idea.

We are bombarded with varying forms of communication and differing degrees of swearing within it. Nothing is bleeped in much of social media; there is extensive bleeping in broadcast television. What one country considers unacceptable, another finds perfectly normal. Just watch BBC America and you will see what I mean. 

Profanity use impacts writers on two levels: whether or not it is an acceptable form of expression for the character/situation and whether or not another word would be better. A writing instructor once said that profanity was lazy writing by someone who couldn't be bothered to figure out another way to state the case. I don't know that I totally agree with that but I can think of several instances where the F-word was used and real people in that situation would probably have uttered a different expletive.

I dropped my first "F" bomb in Help Wanted. I did not use it casually and thought long and hard before including it in the dialogue. However, in that situation, for that character, no other word would suffice. None of my fans have objected so I guess it was appropriate.

Another author experienced the opposite. Her book was so heavily peppered with profanity that her editor protested and strongly encouraged her to rethink her approach. After removing many of the profane words, she still occasionally hears objections. 

As communicators, no matter the format, writers must decide what will involve or what will repel a reader. Involved readers will buy our product in the future; repelled ones - probably not. When it comes to profanity, writers walk a tightrope between acceptability and rejection.

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