Friday, June 27, 2014

The Use of Swearing in Writing

There are things in life that stir up the passions of opposing points of view. Politics, social issues, religion, even flavors of ice cream. One of the biggest is what is or is not appropriate for what age of child.

One thing that seems to stir parents ire and get some writers talking about the First Amendment are the use of swear words. Before I go further, I will state now and for the record, I am a firm believer in the First Amendment. It is, perhaps, the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights. The dangers of restricting it greatly out weigh the dangers of its abuse. So a writer is perfectly free to use four letter words in their writing. Conversely, parents will object to things they don't like. Legally, all they can do is complain. They can also not allow the minor child under their care to read said publication. Often left out of the debate is that such speech must not infringe on the rights of others. I'd say that neatly ties up the constitutional part of this blog.

Now, what is the problem with swearing? People have been swearing since language was invented. Almost as long, mothers have been threatening to wash their children's mouthes out with soap. My mother had a swear jar. Anyone who used a bad word in the house contributed 25¢ to our household budget. As it became more acceptable to swear in popular culture, mothers found their efforts being undermined.

The explanation came in a St. Anselm College theology class, one day while sleep--, -err, sitting through Introduction to Theology. The words themselves weren't the actual problem. However, their original use had them reserved for when someone was upset. Early man bashing his thumb with a hammer stone, for instance. The language was different, but the words probably were pretty much the same as what one of us would use today. The problem arises when these words are used casually. The coarser the language used casually, the fewer emotional safety valves we leave ourselves for when we're really angry. Eventually, they lose their normal punch, and punching may be all that is left.

With this in mind, I made an effort to tone it down in my writing. In someways, it is actually liberating. I just say he swore. "The chitin had them surrounded. He swore." "'Sir, we've got a problem.' He muttered under his breath." My favorite. A Finnian soldier is told that their flank is being turned. She will "unleash a paint blistering Finnian oath." It leaves what is actually said to the imagination. In my case, it alleviates the problem of the fact that soldiers are notorious for harsh language.

Another factor is that words often have multiple meanings and no one quite agrees on what is or is not a swear. Take for example, the Judeo-Christian prohibition on "taking the Lord's name in vain." This one caught me off guard. I am a good Catholic and make a special effort in this regard. When a reviewer commented outside the review about taking "the Lord's name in vain." I was a little taken aback. I had not, at least intentionally, used the Lord's name in vain. I did a bit of research on Google. Agree or disagree, the following site will bring home the point that in the modern world, we don't agree on precisely what taking the Lord's name in vain really means: Those of you who have read Price of Vengeance will note I use the term Creator. As such, it can be part of exclamations. It was the use of "Creator" in an exclamation that the reviewer was objecting to. Did I agree with the reviewer? Yes and no. I didn't feel that a blanket prohibition of using the Lord's name in an explanation was necessary. One often call upon God in distress, even people who aren't religious. One could make several arguments exclamations aren't disrespectful but a cry for help, call to witness, a plea to be present, even a request of patience. On the other hand, I will be looking closely at such exclamations in my next novels.

Will I ever use this reviewer again? Yes. I don't know whether she agrees with my reasoning, but she does understand that I do take such things seriously, and I have the utmost respect for her and her views.

As a person who does reviews, do I "take points off" for swearing? Not as such. I might if I think they are distracting, hence dragging the pace of the plot.

To my author friends, I am not saying that you must not swear. You are well within your rights just as people are free to either object or not buy your book. I am suggesting you keep in mind the reason's behind the objection.