A couple times in grad school, we had quite serious conversations about swearing in our writing class. I don’t mean swearing in class – I mean swearing in our writing. It seemed we had stumbled upon a trend whereby writers appeared to use swear words to shock and awe so often that, much like the overuse of the exclamation point or bold font, they eradicated its effectiveness completely.
Writing, much like cooking, needs the right balance of flavors, and profanity is a powerful seasoning. A Psychology Today article from 2012 describes several good reasons for swearing. Many people I know would completely agree. However, using swear words comes at a cost. A 2015 Forbes article cites a CareerBuilder.com study that states 81% of employers surveyed believe swearing at work “brings an employee’s professionalism into question.” What does what you write say about you?
Having grown up in the North where swear words pretty much equated with punctuation, swearing didn’t bother me all that much at the time. I remember my first week on campus at the very Southern University of Tennessee attending a welcome reception to meet our professors. At one point during a circle of small talk, I casually dropped in an “F bomb,” which caused, I kid you not, a moment of complete silence before chatter resumed. Just like a scene in a movie.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize a gaffe of that magnitude and I became acutely aware of a great many cultural differences. While, despite having spoken in what felt like the loudest voice ever used indoors in the history of man, I am sure no one remembers that moment–certainly not the way I do, I am very certain that a whole heap of perceptions occurred…whether the witnesses realized it consciously or not.They likely categorized me as one of “those Yankees” (bless her heart). It’s possible they questioned my intelligence, despite the competitiveness of the program, because fairly or unfairly, swearing is often considered a sign of questionable education and upbringing.
Now don’t think for a minute that Southerners don’t swear. They do. Oh yes ma’am and/or sir, they do. But instead of using words as punctuation, like a Northerner, they choose exactly the right word at exactly the right moment for effect. Should the timing be off or the setting wrong, as in my faux pas, the words are met with the slight downward cast and almost imperceptible disappointed shake of the head. Used properly, the word crafts paragraphs worth of meaning and shared understanding. Swearing for style. The key to the effect is to use the words ever so sparingly. And rather than string several together, Southerners simply stretch a single syllable word into two, sometimes adding a leading word, as if they’re setting up a tee. For example, “shit” might become “well, shee-ut.”
Back to writing. Does it make sense to use swear words in writing? My opinion is Yes! and NO! I think there is a right (stylish) way to do it and a wrong (people gonna think you’re kinda dumb) way to do it.**
I’ve seen profanity used very well. If one of your characters swears regularly, it can become part of the persona. If none of your characters swear regularly, but one drops just the right word in the perfect moment, you’ve painted the most wonderful dramatic picture. However, I’ve also seen profanity go horribly wrong. If every character swears all the time, not only is it unrealistic, the reader can’t easily tell the characters apart.
Interested in reading some more? Here are a couple resources for profanity in writing:
[**editorial note: if you’re constantly swearing on Facebook or other social media, newsflash: YOU’RE IN PUBLIC. The room is silent and everyone is staring at you. Your readers are judging you without mercy and you’re proving them right. You come off as an unkempt, uncouth moron with an extremely limited vocabulary, so just stop now.]