“Profanity adds nothing to language and detracts plenty. If we want a courteous and respectful society we have to change the ways we think and share our thoughts, we’ll never get there if we settle for resorting to the crudest words we know instead of looking for higher ways of expression.” ~ Mark Henshaw
I am an expert in the use of the F word.
I doubt there is one single version of mother-effing this or mother-effing that that I have not heard or do not know.
I am also pretty close to being an expert in all other kinds of words cut from the same cloth. Words we used to call “cuss” words or “swear” words or even plain ol’ “four letter” words.
How did I gain my expertise?
By doing true verbatim transcription of police interviews—the transcription of actual, recorded word-by-word language as it is used without any kind of editing whatsoever.
I have transcribed:
>>> 911 calls;
>>> Detective interviews at the police station;
>>> Police interviews at the scene;
>>> Jail calls (the person in jail calling a friend or family member);
>>> Search recordings (police searching a crime scene);
>>> Arrest recordings;
>>> Witness recordings; and
>>> Lots of other recorded police situations, so many I can’t remember.
Verbatim transcription can be a kick. I enjoyed it immensely and, after 40 years of doing it in one form or another, I learned a lot about dialogue and about how people talk to each other in real life situations, the rhythm of language and its tempos and nuances.
It was like going to dialogue school.
It was also like going to the How to Use the F-word in a Million Ways School.
People really can have potty mouths when they are talking to each other. I know I can.
But not when I’m writing.
When I’m writing, I don’t want to sound like a verbatim recording.
I have always considered the degradation of the English language in its written form to be the writer’s responsibility.
When I write dialogue, if I use profanity, I am giving voice to and describing the character, education, economic and social sphere, emotional status and intelligence of the person I am giving voice to.
When I use profanity in an opinion piece or when I am expressing myself in the first person, I am doing the same thing—describing my character, education, economic and social sphere, emotional status and intelligence.
Because I am the writer of thoughts and ideas that go into the hearts, ears and minds of the people who read me, I want to have a level of expertise in my craft that gives me a wide range of expressions from which to draw, rather than a range so narrow that it can be heard in everyday (verbatim) transcriptions.
I want to be more than an expert on the use of the F word.
Yes. I am aware of all of the arguments in favor of the use of the F word. Still, I consider a writer’s use of profanity in opinion pieces or in first person essays or in the place of adverbs or adjectives to be less than a desirable use of language.
In her blog on the subject, Tina Ernspiker says:
“Why is [using the F word] a growing trend in the blogging community? Because this crazy world is starving for sensational content that leaves your mouth hung open in awe, whether good or bad, happy or sad. Some writers are turning to profanity to gain attention.”
It’s not that there haven’t been times when I have really wanted to use the F word in my writing.
I have learned however that when I am emotionally attached to a subject to the extent that I feel the F word rising to the level of the page, if I go beneath it to find the source of its expression inside me, I write more effectively and more powerfully using other words.
In his wonderful blog on the subject, author Mark Henshaw opines:
“Profanity has become so common in modern media that its inclusion almost never adds anything to an artistic work. [It] has lost its shock value, rendering it useless as a literary device for character development or delivering emotional impact.”
Personally, I don’t want my stories and articles to read like the people in the verbatim transcripts I typed wrote them.
I want them to shine for a long time, and if I use profanity in my writing, I want it to have the effect that Rhett Butler had.
“Rhett Butler’s profane dismissal of Scarlett O’Hara’s desperate plea at the end of Gone With the Wind [is] so cutting because it’s the only profanity in the entire movie. Cursing was almost non-existent in film in 1939, so hearing Rhett tell Scarlett in profane terms that he doesn’t care what happens to her was so devastating, so shocking, so powerful that the American Film Institute declared it the #1 line of film dialogue of all time.” ~ Mark Henshaw
That’s what I want for my writing—for it to be “powerful”—not from the use of profanity, but from its paucity.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Angelina Litvin/Unsplash