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Monday, July 16, 2012

Watch Your Language!

As a Christian writer, I often face the assumption that I never have my characters use bad language, and that often extends to the assumption that I don't use it myself...

Well. As to the first, I'll talk about it in a minute. As to the second, DEEP SIGH. I could do better.

The question of how much obscenity/profanity to use in a novel isn't always an easy one. My stories are about soldiers, either active duty or retired. The soldier who doesn't swear is a rarity (they do exist). So it's really not a question of whether to use bad language, it's 'what kind', 'where', and 'how much'.

The first question, 'what kind', addresses the distinction between obscenity and profanity, i.e, is God's name used in vain or not. My aim here is to minimize obscenity, but if a character would use it in a situation, to go ahead. Profanity I don't use, unless the text in question can be taken in the context of a rough prayer.

Where to use it? In general, only within dialogue. Nothing gets more boring quicker than a character to whose thoughts we are privy, when those thoughts consist of a long string of expletives.

The movie "Hamburger Hill" has an excellent example. Two characters are talking about 'boonie rap'; one was sent home from Viet Nam on compassionate leave, and his grandmother fixed him his favorite meal.  He recounted how he said to his grandma, "Could you please pass the f*****g potatoes?", and how it got worse from there.

Should this be in a book? I think, yes, because it emphasizes the divide between the way soldiers and civilians interpret the world through language. But it doesn't need to fill every page. Once, and it's shock value. A hundred times, and it's mental Novocaine.

Also, Irishmen and New Zealanders (for instance) tend to use f*****g as an all-purpose adverb. I worked for a New Zealander, and when he got going, that expression was used in every sentence. I think that the way to emphasize this casual use is to add the 'all-purpose adverb' when the character's introduced, thrown into a completely innocuous context...and then leave it alone as much as possible. The point's been made.

And that begs the question, "How much?" I use bad language sparingly, as emphasis to express the emotion of the character using it, in a way that's internally consistent with the character's personality. And since I can set up the scenes myself, I can avoid description of a scene that would require the use of a lot of profanity.  For instance, describing tactical radio transmissions during a firefight would require a lot of cursing to be even remotely believable. Yes, there is such a thing as radio discipline, and it goes out the window in heavy contact.

But I can avoid that scene, or describe it differently. I'm the boss!

Writers, what do you think? Readers, what do you like or dislike?


  1. Hey Andrew,

    I grew up in US southeast and was raised on sterile sentences only, "d*mn" and "h*ll" never allowed. My stepmother said "sugar" for "sh*t" and wouldn't allow us to do differently.

    Then I came to South Africa and discovered a whole new perspective. Here, the kids not only say those words they will openly say them in a crowd of adults and no one flinches.

    I first became aware of this at a youth camp, of all places.

    During free time the kids were chatting, snacking and playing various board games. I was sitting and absorbing the atmosphere but was occasionally disturbed with an expletive - d*mn. The noise was sufficient to mask where it came from initially but I eventually found the offender and gently queried him on this.

    His explanation? D*mn and h*ll are not bad words and everyone uses them in all settings. I was dubious at first but have since verified this.

    Which leads me to think that maybe these words aren't as bad as we were led to believe.

    They do, of course, have a few no-no words here: bloody and bugger. Say those words at tea and you'll be shunned for life.

    It's interesting that words they think are horrible are nothing more than humorous, friendly exclamations in the US.

  2. My late brother spent much of his life in South Africa and Yorkshire, and he found things pretty much as you describe - he moved in academic circles, and he said that the first time a very genteel woman said f*** in a somewhat formal setting, he dropped his teacup.

    I spent much time with Englishmen and Irishmen (separately - the individuals involved would have literally been at one another's throats if thrown together). They used the two b-words with abandon. It may have been more a 'job culture' thing than a 'class issue', as some of theses individuals had extensive college education, and some of the Englishmen were 'of the blood'.

  3. I just can't bring myself to use profanity in a book I'm hoping will minister to women, and the occasional weepy, sensitive guy.
    My older son played defense for his high school hockey team, my middle played forward on his Triple A team, or AAA as we write it up here. If you're Canadian you know what AAA means.
    Yet the older one's favourite channel is The Military Channel. Whenever I hear swearing, I tell the older 2 boys to change the channel. They just laugh and tell me "Mom, you've been to a hockey rink, right."

    They know if they do swear, and the name Major is on their jersey? They will NOT do it again. Their coaches always, always tell us how polite they are.

    1. I can understand that. I personally don't like obscenity, and really don't like profanity. And it can alienate readers.

      Tell the boys, from me, to listen to you when you tell them to change the channel. Exposure to cursing coarsens one's language, and eventually one's soul.

      I'm sometimes a sensitive, weepy guy. I think most men are, when you touch them in the right way. I used to tell my students, "It takes a very hard man to allow others to see his softness."

      As Gandalf says, "Not all tears are an evil."

      Although...when I first saw LOTR, I turned to Barbara and asked, "What a 'neevil'?"

      Exposure to 50 BMG will do that, I'm afraid.

  4. I appreciate the back up. Sadly, after a 9 years for Jordan and 13 years for Chris, they are rather used to the language of a hockey dressing room and school hallways.

    A neevil is the taller cousin of a weevil.

    WHat's 50 BMG?