Monday, 25 November 2013

You Don’t (Often) Need Profanity

A few times a year I see a post about the right to use profanity, and every time I do, I wonder where are the people writing the rebuttal. Then I realised no one is...

To be clear, I’m not saying you don’t have the right to swear. What I’m debating is whether there is usually any need to swear, and what it achieves if you do. A right, after all, need not always be exercised. Even the right to vote in some countries is not often exercised (and I would love to see posts passionately exhorting people to vote the same way they exhort them to swear, because, you know, voting is so much less important than foul language…).

Before we get started, let’s be clear, profane words are not intrinsically bad. There is no such thing as a bad word, although this has come to be the common understanding. But like all words, profane words have meanings, and as is the case with the English language, words often have shades of meaning. The meaning of profane words goes past their strict literal definition and includes an element of offensiveness.

I’ve seen people argue that only the literal definition should matter, but the fact remains that these words have historically been, and continue to be, used to insult and offend or at least shock. We have created this definition, and it seems as ridiculous to me to rail against this fact as to complain that ‘sheep’ means a woolly herbivorous animal. Particularly if you yourself actually use these words in this sense. Sure, definitions change, but this is a slow, organic process. Exhorting people to stop treating profanity as offensive simply won’t work.

So, why don’t you need to swear?

It’s Not Articulate

Really, you can’t think of a better word to express how you feel? Maybe your vocabulary is limited through no fault of your own, or perhaps you are communicating with such people, in which case profanity may be the most effective means of communication. 

But if you do have a better vocabulary, what’s your excuse for not using it? The only time I forget my vocabulary is when I’m so sleep-deprived my brain stops functioning, or perhaps in extreme instances of pain.

#writetip – vary your language. Use specific descriptors, and don’t fall into patterns of repetition. Convey precisely the meaning you intend to convey.

It’s Not Effective Communication

I’m not saying that using profanity negates what you are saying, or makes your points any less valid, but it often means people stop paying attention.

When you start swearing at people, they stop listening. It doesn’t matter how valid your point is, they stop wanting to help you. Swearing at a customer service representative never gets you what you want. Swearing in a complaint won’t be taken as seriously as the person who can articulate their problem. It certainly won’t persuade a judge to your point of view.

In the instance that someone continues to pay attention after you start swearing, then to some extent profanity does denote emotion and anger, which thus also often denotes irrationality, and so your words are given less weight.

If, however, you can precisely articulate your problem, your position, your argument, in a calm and logical manner, you are more likely to persuade someone to your point of view.

As I said above, words have shades of meaning. In fact, we can look at words like tools. Profanity is like a hammer – it’s big, heavy, and packs a punch. But hey, that’s not always appropriate!

I don’t swear when I get angry, and my husband says that’s worse. You can’t always get your point across using the same blunt tool.

He strains to hear a whisper who refuses to hear a shout – Robert Jordan, the Wheel of Time

Often It’s Meaningless

One of the #writetips I tweet is ‘If a word can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning, then you probably should’.

Often profane words are redundant. They don’t really add anything to the sentence. Consider the way profanity is used in everyday language:

‘So he fucking told me the fucking goods needed to be picked up and then he got in his fucking truck and fucking drove away.’

Considering that such a sentence may well be delivered by someone who is not angry, the word adds no value to the sentence. There is even a teenage version, with which you may be more familiar and it reads like this:

‘So he, like, told me that the goods, like, needed to be picked up, and then he, like, got in his truck and, like, drove away.’

OK, so you probably wouldn't hear a teenager say that exact sentence, but I wanted to make the comparison of usage.

The second example would drive so many people absolutely crazy. The first would be defended by some of the same people. To me they are the same. Take the whole question of profanity out of it, if the word doesn’t need to be there, it’s repetitive, and adds nothing to the sentence, don’t use it! The first version annoys me just as much as the second. Don't tell me verbal language is different to writing unless you are happy to listen to someone say 'like' every fourth word.

When Is Profanity Effective?

I’ve seen it suggested that profanity is effective in communication to create a visceral, emotional response, but I think this is limited to select communications, usually written articles designed to provoke a response (and not one where the response you want is someone to do something for you). It seems to be useful for provoking discussion. I don’t think it’s useful in everyday communication which is, let’s face it, the bulk of communication for most of us.

It’s certainly going to be effective in fiction where you are showing something about a character by its use. Obviously it's necessary in an article like this one discussing the subject.

You Can Swear If You Want

Sure, if you don’t care about any of the above reasons, then you can use profanity for no better reason than because you want to. I won’t like you any less for it.

But please - don’t tell me you’re striking a blow for the freedom of communication, or furthering some great literary purpose! I call a spade a spade, and a spade this is not.

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