What the… on swearing, and adverbs, in writing

I have to admit that I am rather puzzled at people who declare that they don’t use swear words in writing. Oh, I totally understand why the decision is made, and this post is not to tell them that they should decide differently, or tell them that the sky will fall if they don’t, but my reason for being puzzled is the same as for people who proclaim to never need adverbs or the word ‘that’ in their writing.

All of those words, adverbs, the word ‘that’ or ‘something’ and including the less-polite words, evolved in the language for a reason. You may not need them as often as you think, but dropping them altogether makes the language poorer.

As for swear words, they can be very powerful tools of emotion and characterisation if used in the right way.

I’m sure we can all think of people who use the word fucking as a meaningless adjective. I hear them talk while travelling on the train, while walking past a building site (Hey, mate, pass us up the fucking hammer, will ya?). The word has lost its meaning, but don’t tell me that this line doesn’t conjure up a personality for you. Frankly, the characterisation of the young tradesman would not be the same without the meaningless adjective. It’s how these people talk. Seriously. We’ve renovated our house. There are also tradesmen who don’t allow their apprentices to swear. That says something about them, too (I’ve had a team of those working on the house, too). The meaningless adjective is a tool of characterisation.

Swearing is a tool of emotion. In music, the intensity is governed by articulation marks. In writing, emotional intensity is governed only by words. If your character gets extremely angry or upset, exclamation marks wear out their welcome pretty quickly. Your character may not always be in a situation where there is shouting.

Imagine the following situation: your character is in a stiff and formal business meeting. She is a CEO, but is part of a larger board. She is normally professional, not prone to hysterics or emotional language in the workplace. She is in this meeting where certain people have to justify a stuff-up. The meeting is going nowhere, and in the middle, she points at the main perpetrator, who has made a mess of a particular job and says ‘Why don’t you just tell everyone that you fucked up?’

Lines like that are the stuff of legend, both in real life and in fiction. Within minutes, the whole company will be abuzz with gossip OMG, did you hear what she said? This will be repeated around the gossip circuit for days, weeks, if not longer. It would not be half as powerful without the f-word.

Why should you voluntarily restrict your emotional verbal arsenal?


  1. Damn fucking straight, Patty. πŸ™‚

    I think of Jay, the long-haired character from several of Kevin Clark’s films (including Dogma, one of my all-time favorite films): without profanity, he wouldn’t work. It’s part and parcel of what makes him Jay.

    That said, if profanity offends a person, they probably won’t enjoy watching Jay on screen, or like the character much. So, while Kevin Clark uses Jay’s profanity to great effect in his films, he’s also reducing the audience for those films. Which is a good tradeoff, if you ask me: you can’t please everyone, and vanilla-fying a text (scene, idea, …) until it offends no one is usually just a recipe for forgettable.

  2. Oh, and there where I say Kevin Clark? That was a cleverly constructed play on Kevin Smith. Yeah. Not a brain fart. Nope.

  3. Absolutely agree. About the tradesmen, the shock value and not being able to understand people who say you shouldn’t use ‘that’, ‘was’, adverbs or swears.

    And I agree with Grayson, too.

  4. Well written. You have an excellent argument. It’s a challenge to write without the language because it does limit possibities, but sometimes a challenge is fun.

    Part of it for me comes from being a parent and having to watch my language around my kids to a degree. I don’t have a problem with swearing in writing for the most part, but it’s sort of fun leaving it out. πŸ™‚

  5. Oh, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to link to this in my post on not swearing as a counter argument. πŸ™‚

  6. Sure, go ahead. Thanks!

  7. Done. πŸ™‚ http://ryallon.blogspot.com/2011/06/writing-without-profanity.html

    Congratulations on winning Writers of the Future btw. That’s an extraodinary accomplishment. πŸ™‚

  8. Gah, I’m sorry. I didn’t see these comments. I’m also thinking Billy Elliott. Billy’s father wouldn’t be authentic without the language

  9. The only thing that’s worse than a piece in which the word ‘was’ is used twice in every sentence is one where it’s not used at all πŸ˜‰

    Or where the writer has contorted sentences in order to avoid ‘passive’ writing or using the word ‘that’. Or adverbs.

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