What The ?$*@? Swearing in Writing

To swear or not to swear. That is the question.

To swear or not to swear. That is the question.

I went with my mum to see the new Bridget Jones film last week.

On the train, on the way to meet her in Birmingham, I got a text “I am in the OCEAN”. She meant, of course, that she was in the ODEON (she’d not taken a detour to the Sea Life Centre). Ah, the joys of predictive text.

Anyway, what I’m leading to with this rather long preamble, is to say that, much as I enjoyed the film (good job because I’ve already committed to go and see it again this week), there was an awful lot of SWEARING!

Ooh, listen to me, Mary Whitehouse BUT, as it was a Tuesday morning, the cinema was almost empty but the few people who were in there were, like my mum, on the whole, older ladies, who’d gone out to have a nice time with a friend. The references to sex weren’t a problem (and hopefully they didn’t understand some of the cruder ones) but all those ‘f’ words really started to grate.

And during the childbirth scene (hopefully this isn’t too much of a spoiler), when someone suggests to Bridget that she remembers her yoga and she yells “**** yoga!” what should have been quite a funny line just fell flat because, quite frankly, we’d heard it all before. Have the writers (Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson) never heard of ‘less is more’?

So, for the fun of it (and because I’ve never, in over 500 posts, mentioned this before), here are my tips (or anti-tips, perhaps?) for using ‘bad language’ in your writing:

* Bear in mind that language is a living, organic thing. Words that were considered offensive say, ten years ago, may be perfectly acceptable now – and vice versa.

* You have no idea which words will offend which readers. Everyone’s different. I remember we read The Cuckoo’s Calling – the first Robert Galbraith novel – in my book club. It contains some pretty earthy language (as do the others in the series) and for one of the (female) members of the group it was all too much. It was all she could focus on during our discussions and had, in fact, caused her to put the book down, unfinished, after only a few chapters.

* If you’re writing for the womags (women’s magazines), I’d say swearing, in any form, however mild, is a no-no. Why? Because it may offend too many readers. You could probably get away with a ‘Blast!’ or a ‘Heck!’possibly even a ‘damn’ or two but nothing stronger.

* If it’s essential to your character that he/she swears, then do you have to use the word? Could you put, instead ‘he swore’ or ‘he cursed’ and let the reader decide for themselves what words might have been uttered? It doesn’t have quite the same impact but there’s no chance of offending anyone that way.

* Maybe it’s just me, but if I read, say, a competition entry and it’s full of swear words, it really turns me off (it feels like the author’s ‘showing off’). But perhaps it depends on your characters and setting. As Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting (and the acknowledged ‘Master of Cuss Words’) says, “I use swear words differently from other writers. People speak that way; it would be pretentious not to use four-letter words while writing about the kind of people I write about.”

Most of us swear (when I’m driving I sometimes sound like I’ve got Tourettes), so perhaps (womags excepted) it’s not realistic to leave swearing out of our characters’ speech. What d’you think?

One more flipping birthday...

One more flipping birthday…

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11 Responses to What The ?$*@? Swearing in Writing

  1. Wendy Clarke says:

    That’s really strange. I don’t like swearing but when I went to see Bridget Jones’ Baby, last week, I wasn’t aware of it at all! I was too busy thinking how the film wasn’t a patch on the other two and how I preferred Rene Zellweger when she was plump. As to using swear words in my writing. I have a few in the novel but nothing more that a ‘damn’ in my magazine stories.

  2. Wendy, that just goes to prove my point I suppose, that you never really know what will offend a reader – or what he/she won’t even notice! (But I was talking to a friend on the phone yesterday about the film and we both commented on the swearing – which is what prompted this blog post!). Anyway, I agree with you, Renee Zellweger looked much better when she was less..er.. skinny, didn’t she? Bless her, I still love her though. I felt really nostalgic, seeing that film last week. A bit teary even!! What am I like?!!

  3. juliathorley says:

    This is a really interesting point. I think it’s about being appropriate for and respectful of the audience. It’s like swearing at your partner when he’s done something stupid, but biting your tongue with, say, your grandma. One of the reasons I didn’t stick with The Wire was because it was too ‘Look at me, I’m swearing!’ for my taste – although I dare say this is how the characters would be in real life. Why doesn’t anyone swear on EastEnders? Because it’s before the watershed – ie, it would be inappropriate.

  4. I agree with your comment entirely Helen. I HATE to hear/read excessive swearing and for a lot of US movies sadly, it seems to be the norm now. I also attempt to write plays, as they offer more creative freedom from womag stories. I could easily have my characters effing and jeffing all the way through. I don’t, because I know the audience will get bored (as I do) For me, it shows a lack of intelligence on the playwright’s part. I think Crikey – is that the best they can do? Haven’t they heard of sparkling dialogue?

    • Sharon, I think perhaps the use of swear words is a bit like the use of adjectives – one, well-chosen one is much better than a stream of them, which end up having either no impact or completely turn the reader off!

  5. pennywrite says:

    Lots to think about here. I’m not a big fan of swear words in print (or in speech, for that matter) but occasionally they fulfil a purpose. If skilfully used for impact, then less is definitely more!
    Good for you if you can concoct a makespeak word, perhaps, as did the writers of ‘Porridge’… when ‘naff’ later became a word in its own right 🙂

    • Penny, yes the ‘naff’ thing is very interesting, isn’t it? Ronnie Barker apparently never claimed to have invented the word (didn’t Princess Anne once tell a bunch of journalists to ‘naff off’?!) but it certainly sounds like a suitably rude four letter word and it gets round the problem of how to make ‘prison speak’ as realistic as possible. Clever stuff!

  6. Went to see Bridget Jones last night and I agree that the F word was used much too frequently. Personally (& this probably makes me sound very prudish!) I hate to hear women swear in that way – especially around children, which they were doing in the film. Having said that, I did enjoy the light, escapism of the film – and I think the last image left the way open for another sequel.

  7. Interesting post! I don’t swear and don’t like to hear gratuitous swearing in movies or read it in books. I don’t mind the occasional damn or hell, but anything more than that turns me off. I do have characters in my books that swear, but I leave the actual swear words out and just use “he cursed” or “she swore under her breath” and phrases like that. The reader can imagine whatever swear word they prefer.
    The “I am in the ocean” text made me laugh. 🙂

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