The era of swearing
I not only write a lot, I read a lot. On Goodreads you can see my history of reading in books, but books form only a small portion of the material I read. I read journals, newspapers, articles, magazines and blogs. Often the blogs related to professional matters. The sorts of things relevant to the LinkedIn audience.
Recently, I’ve noticed a marked increase in swearing in this material. It’s an interesting trend to observe, but it’s not a trend I really like.
I am not a prude. I know that sentence makes me sound like one of those racists who start conversations along the lines of “I am not a racist but …”. However, I really believe I can make a strong case for not being a prude, at least in the context of swearing. I swear, but not excessively and rarely in writing. Additionally, I am unashamedly going to make use of swear words in this text, (beware, if sensitive to such things it’s probably best not to read further)!
As far as swearing goes I am not going to comment much on literature and fiction. There swearing plays a role capturing the real ways period speak and the vernacular of the context in which a book is set. To capture people and moods realistically requires using realistic language and anyone familiar with modern English knows this contains a fair amount of expletives. The truth is swearing in literature often works. Trainspotting would hardly resonate if Irvine Welsh had given the characters language of an Enid Blyton novel. But in professional literature I don’t really like it that much.
Is this just me?
Before judging, let me explain my reasons – they may not be the ones expected.
The main reason I don’t like much swearing in professional literature is that mostly it is unnecessary. And rather than being shocked by those words, my real problem is that unnecessary swearing devalues what can be very useful words. It’s not that I don’t want people to swear, it’s that I don’t want people to swear so much that a group of powerful words lose them impact.
The use of swear words
In English swear words have a rich and flexible nature. I’m not original in noticing this. But if you have not before - consider the sentence “stop fucking around you fucking fucker, I am going to fucking do it”. Here derivatives of the word ‘fuck’ act as a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb. What a wonderfully flexible word, especially when we consider that in no use of this word in this sentence, did it ever really mean anything related to the dictionary or Anglo-Saxon definition of ‘fuck’.
Why do we use them? To provide emphasis – doing it “fucking badly” is somewhat worse than just doing it “badly”. To show displeasure – a shout of “shit” implies irritation or anger. There is another unfortunate category when people swear because somehow they think it is cool. This is rather like watching a 14 year old smoking. We all know he is not really enjoying that cigarette, but he thinks he looks grown up because he is. In reality, we think he is just a child doing what children tend to do.
As a source of emphasis swearing can work. Swearing can provide powerful emphasis, but only if used sparingly. That does not mean you can’t use it a lot in one place, but not all the time in everything you write. Else it starts to sound like someone who puts the word “very” and “very very” before every statement. In writing, this just sounds silly or juvenile.
To show displeasure it also works, but again used sparingly, else we start to filter it out. When the habitual swearer says “fuck” we ignore it. When the bishop says “fuck” we perk up our ears and listen, simply because part of the power is in its infrequency of use.
One analogy is the word ‘awesome’. When I was a child pretty much no one used this word outside of a religious context. I expect some authors had used it to convey a particular sense of the magnificent or wonderful.
Nowadays it’s used all over the place in quite trivial ways. You can have an awesome sandwich, an awesome holiday or watch an awesome film. This is just part of the normal adaptation and change in language. I have no issue with that. Even if I did, it would be pointless having an issue as change in language in inevitable.
But that does not mean it has had no effect. It has had an effect. The effect is that the once useful word ‘awesome’ has lost its usefulness. If you say something is awesome, you are using a word that nowadays refers to the quality of a hamburger. That might be what you want, but if you were looking for something more impressive than that, you’ll now have to find a different word.
A side problem
Before I get onto my real issue, I want to flag one side issue with swearing professionally and in professional writing. That is the impression it sets.
I know biases are usually poorly founded and reflect as much the thought process of the holder of the bias as they do reflect reality. I admit to biases. I’m not proud of them and I try not to have them, but here is one. When I read or hear excessive swearing I automatically assume this is because the swearer does not have any other way of communicating. Essentially, I assume they are not very bright.
Now, this is a bad bias because I personally know some very bright people who swear profusely. Nevertheless this bias is deep in my psyche and no matter how much I try to get rid of it, it remains. Now you probably, or even hopefully, don’t worry about the petty biases of one person like me. The problem is, that I suspect a lot of people hold this same bias.
On one level, that’s their problem, and we should not perhaps worry too much about other people’s biases even if they are widespread. Except professional life is built on interactions and relationships, and factors like respect and trust. Someone thinking you aren’t very bright is generally not a helpful state to have professionally.
So what’s the answer?
I don’t know if there is an answer, as swearing in professional writing is probably just another sign of the evolution of language. But I have a suggestion, at least as far as professional writing goes:
- If you don’t want to swear – don’t. There’s always another way of expressing anything without swearing, and usually it is much more elegant and emphatic.
- If you do swear, don’t do it too much unless you want to appear as not very bright. (If you are strong and don’t care about other people’s opinions, well carry on).
- If you really feel the need to swear, do. But only when you need to. Use such words rarely, and only when you want to surprise your readers and given them a sense of profound emphasis. They can give a dramatic effect, but only if used occasionally.
Else, if you use swear words too much in professional writing, to adopt the topic of this article, it’s just shit writing.
Any opposing views?
This article was first published on Richard’s Goodreads blog in February 2016 (see https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7068505.Richard_Newton)