To swear or not to swear

. Don’t worry, I won’t swear in this.

Swearing is an incredibly divisive issue. Some people are more offended by swearing than by sex or violence. Others think they’re just words, and people shouldn’t be offended by words. Still others think that swearing, whilst it isn’t meaningless, is sometimes necessary – if your hero’s house burns down, his dog dies and his wife runs off with the gardener and his only reaction is ‘oh dear’ – well, it seems a bit unrealistic.

The point of a swear word is that it usually a short sharp word that expels air. Say a few swear words, and feel the force of it – it’s blunt, and expressive. Even when we don’t know a language, we can usually recognise a swear word because of the way it sounds. It expresses a feeling no other word can, simply because of the way it feels when it is said.

In the written word, there are tricks to get around swearing. Lines such as ‘she swore, expressively and fluently’ or ‘he used a word he would never have used in front of his mother’. They get the point across whilst avoiding the offensive word. Although taking that path means you miss the force and power of a really well chosen swear word.

Screenplays can be more tricky. It can be impossible to get away without swearing, in some situations. However, swearing can be overused, and lose it’s power. I saw a film recently where the main character said the f word twenty times in the first five minutes. After the first three, it was irritating. After five, it was boring. And by the end of it, I realised that the writer was using it so often because he lacked the skills to make his character seem dark and dangerous any other way. But the incessant swearing didn’t make the character dark or dangerous – it just made him boring.

The BBC series Spooks also uses the f word – but only once or twice a season. This means, when it’s used, that moment has incredible impact.

Do i swear? In real life, I swear like a drunken sailor on his last night’s leave in Portsmouth. In writing, I tend not to. I find it lazy, and normally pointless. But occasionally, my characters have no choice but to let slip that short sharp shock of a word.

The choice to swear or not is up to you. But do remember, these are words with more power to them – both because of what they represent, and what they sound like, so use them with skill and wisdom.

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6 responses to “To swear or not to swear

  1. I always try to avoid it, in all circumstances. Often times there is a more expressive word to use. After all, that’s what we are doing when we speak. Expressing ourselves. At the same time, while writing, I have to give in to the fact that my characters don’t necessarily share my inclinations. Thus, on occasion, they let loose words which I have never once spoken.

    Interestingly enough, however, I do curse. I just don’t curse like the American that I am. I ascribe the fact that I curse like a Brit to the fact that I read far too much Terry Pratchett while in my young, impressionable years. The best thing is that most American’s don’t realize I’m cursing.

  2. So very true.

    I usually have two different sets of rules when it comes to swearing. If it goes on my regular blog, I make it a point not to swear, or if I have to swear, I put a disclaimer up to warn people about the potential offensive language.

    If it goes on my short story blog, well, I rated that blog “adult” so you have to answer yes or no to continue.

    For the most part, I try to keep the swearing to the minimum in my stories. Like you stated, I try to use it when the situation calls for it. Dropping two dozen F-bombs does absolutely nothing for me, either as writer or a reader.

  3. Hey Michelle,
    Very thought provoking post. I think swearing depends on the genre–or even subgenre. Most folks reading a cozy don’t want to see swearing in their books. People reading noire mysteries seem to expect it–it’s part of the dark world. Romances? Definitely not the sweet romance types, but maybe in some erotica.
    I think writers really need to think very hard on genre before they decide on graphic language.

  4. I write 1920 Africa and (in public) one simply just didn’t swear. So I’ve come up with other more creative time capsules expressions of exasperation although a good solid “damn” does show up from time to time

  5. Great post! Sometimes I think the characters need that outlet of expression and it can show who and what they are by the words they use. But any word loses meaning if overused…

  6. I’m a prude, so I don’t swear, in person, or in my writing. I’m with lucidlunatic, I might say, ‘He swore under his breath’ if I’m talking about one of the villains. I think my readers can supply all the expletives that are needed, if they think that way. But, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of us will not read anything with a profane word. In fact, I knew a man who went through every new book he bought with a permanent marker, and crossed out every expletive. We are a different breed. I have friends that curse, and some are on Facebook with me. I love them anyway. Orson Scott Card uses an occasional bad word, and he is of my faith, but I read his books anyway because they are terrific! But, as for my pen, no cursing shall flow.

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