Note: In an attempt to keep this blog as family friendly as possible, strong language will be censored (e.g. a**, f***, s***, etc.) [yes, I couldn’t fight the urge to start and end that with Latin abbreviations…] and external links to sites/clips/articles which include strong language/adult content will be marked with a caret (^) so as not to be confused with other asterisks (*). If you prefer not to read such content, please avoid those links. You have been duly warned.
Television and Movies have some fun rules when it comes to what actors can and can’t say on screen. Where plays and novels have not had many problems with restricted content, state censorship of motion pictures has gone back nearly as far as motion pictures themselves. This censorship of motion pictures eventually gave way to The Motion Picture Production Code (perhaps better known as The Hays Code) which strictly governed what could and couldn’t be shown between the 1930’s and 1960’s. Though quite long in its entirety, The Hays Code included some points such as:
II. Sex. The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.
V. Profanity. Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ – unless used reverently), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.
And the list goes on and on.
Though The Hays Code is no longer around, it’s predecessor, the MPAA movie classification system is still alive and strong, currently marking movies as G, PG, PG–13, R, or NC–17 based on the movie’s content and the way that content is handled.
Other broadcasted media finds itself likewise watched by The Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This governing body decides what is allowed on the air, and is the reason George Carlin couldn’t say his “Seven Dirty Words^” on television, much to the chagrin of some TV writers. Some more risqué shows, such as Fox’s Family Guy, have gone so far as to out right mock the FCC (in song)^ during their broadcast.
However, while the screen and airwaves might be regulated, plays and books aren’t.
If you so desired, you could see a fully naked Daniel Radcliffe in a recent production of Equus, and you’ll never see an ‘R’ rating on a book just because a character says f***. You certainly won’t find major outlets refusing to carry books that would likely be NC-17 films the way many major movie theatres often cap what they show at R. So novelist/playwrights don’t have to worry about how they use strong language in their work. But should they?
In my opinion, yes and no. As with everything else in writing, it’s important to think about the pros and cons about what’s being put down on paper, and what you’re trying to accomplish, when you use strong language.
1. Pro: Real people swear. In an earlier blog, I touched on the pros and cons of dialogue and narrative. Though it isn’t the point of that blog, it’s briefly mentioned that it’s important to keep dialogue sounding natural. Well, depending on who you know, it’s possible more than half of what you hear in any one sentence involves strong language. It’s possible to use “clean swears” some times, but we all know people who wouldn’t say “Darn it!” or “Shoot!” if they banged their knee against a table. If your character would swear, it’s awkward sometimes trying to get around it. After all, as John Brophy wrote in his 1930 book, Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918:
“It [F***] became so common that an effective way for the soldier to express this emotion was to omit this word. Thus if a sergeant said, ‘Get your f***ing rifles!’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said ‘Get your rifles!’ there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.”
Can you imagine a soldier in the trenches really say, “What the frick???”
2. Con: Strong language can lose readers/make readers uncomfortable. All right, maybe you don’t want to censor yourself just because someone might be offended, but if you’re writing for publication it is something to think about. Are you willing to turn some people off just so you can use the exact language you want? If yes, use it. If not, strongly consider toning it down. As a part of one review for my book Grey Areas, one person mentions language is why they’d rate the book as 3.5/5 instead of 4/5:
“Now… this would have been 4 stars but all the swearing was a bit much for me. Yes, yes – I know – Demons – bad guys – of course they swear! I totally get that, and I agree. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind a couple in a scene when the situation really calls for it, but there were a lot of f-bombs.”
For me, the swearing was carefully planned in the book (one group swears [often] the other doesn’t at all), but doing that I (and the rest of us who want to do something similar) have to accept it can make some people uneasy.
3. Pro: You can tell a lot about a character based on the language they use. Going back to the first point (real people swear) you can quickly characterize someone based on the type of language they use. Do they swear? How often do they swear? What (if any) words are taboo to them? Do you have a character that swears in every sentence, but still won’t say f***? Do you have a character who won’t even say ‘Jesus’? Just by knowing that, you (and the reader) know a lot about your characters (and you have a good place to figure out more about your characters if you’re doing a Character Questionnaire. Why do they/don’t they swear?)
4. Con: Swearing can be a crutch. As my mother use to say, swearing is often the sign of a poor vocabulary. Now, I believe that can be far too easily generalized (nothing wrong with swearing if that’s how your character talks) but if you’re using strong language in places that might be better served with other words, it can be lazy (and often weaker) writing.
5. Pro/Con: Rare strong language can be shocking. This point can really be a pro or a con depending on how you look at it. As with the soldier example up there, when a character often uses strong language, it loses its effect (e.g. “Get your f***ing riffles). However, if a character doesn’t swear, the one time you hear that character swear, it becomes very clear very quickly how serious/upset they are. Whether that means you should use a lot of strong language or little depends on whether you want “Get your f***ing riffles!” to be routine or urgent.
And I’m sure there are more, but those are what I generally consider when it comes to strong language in otherwise unmoderated writing. Feel free to supply your own considerations, though comments/tweets/emails will be moderated for language (re: family friendly) before posting.