Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 10 October 2015

Bad language - or language that's fit for purpose? by Jenny Harper

No swearing!
By Loozrboy (Watch your language)
[CC BY-SA 2.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
Is bad language in a novel offensive? Or should I be asking, when is bad language in a novel offensive? These are questions I've wrestled with for some time, ever since a reader in America posted a review that objected to one of my characters cursing.

I'm not a great fan of bad language when every other character is 'effing and blinding' all the time – yet there are plenty of people in this world who don't even think of f***  or f***ing as swear words. They aren't even verbs or adjectives, they are just a normal feature of their speech.

Balanced against that, many people are really turned off by the use of such words, and that needs to be thought about too.

Is there a scale? Is 'bl**dy' all right? Or 'b*gger'? What about 'damn'? I think I'm right in saying some US readers would consider 'darn' more acceptable. I'm envious of the Irish who seem to get away with 'fecking' and the Americans who have 'freaking', while we don't seem to have an English variant on the same level of acceptability. There are one or two words I wouldn't ever let my characters use because I personally consider them too high up a scale of my own making – yet I'm finding my use of the ****ing asterisk very coy!

Oh g*sh, this is all very complicated, isn't it!

Some people swear occasionally. Some people swear a lot. Some people never swear – so when they do, it immediately conveys a great deal about their state of mind. All these are things that can be used to differentiate characters. I have friends who habitually say 'sugar' instead of 'sh*t' or 'oh good heavens' instead of 'oh my God'. They correct children or grandchildren if they swear. They use wonderfully creative alternatives to swear words, such as 'oh plinkety plonk' or 'suffering catfish'.

One evening I raised this question with some of them, and we discovered that over the evening's game of bridge we all actually swore (mildly but frequently). Only once was this on the f*** scale, but that's because we are all douce, middle class women.

Back to writing novels. My characters swear when it's appropriate, and sometimes this creates a strong effect. A violent criminal isn't likely to say, 'Oh bother,' when something goes wrong – but neither is a douce, middle class woman when shocked, terrified, or  faced with disaster.

Have I already lost a whole swathe of readers? What do other writers feel?

Oh heck.

Click here for Jenny Harper's Amazon page.


29 comments:

  1. Oh, ****, Jenny, you pinched my next blog topic!

    I was going to write about it because I’ve only recently written my first ‘f’ word in a novel. I thought long and hard about it and I eventually decided that anything less strong would have undermined the scene completely.

    Personally I’ll go as far as a b****r or a b****y and anything stronger puts me off a book, if used unreasonably. But what’s unreasonable?

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  2. Interesting post, Jenny. I've read all your books and don't remember any swearing in them - if there was it must have been fitting and appropriate!
    Swearing in books doesn't bother me but I prefer to see the words written out, not with asterisks, which make me feel the author is being a bit mealy-mouthed. As if he/she is telling the reader, "I don't really approve of swearing but my character has to use these words sometimes."
    If authors don't feel swearing is appropriate, that's fine.

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    1. There isn't a lot, Mary, but it is there. As a matter of interest – you know my next novel has an elderly man with dementia in it – I know some people with the condition do swear a lot (uncharacteristically) – did your father change in that way at all? Just curious... My mother never did.

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    2. No he never took to swearing. I don't remember him swearing at all when I was a child and only when I was an adult did the occasional bloody or bugger escape his lips. Funnily enough my next Goldfish post is about swearing - mine, not his - and his reaction, though it's more about being utterly exhausted - me, not him.
      I think the uncharacteristic swearing is more common in people with Alzheimers rather than vascular dementia - but I could be wrong.

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    3. Thanks Mary. Your honesty about all this is both refreshing and very insightful. Neither of my parents took to swearing either.

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  3. Scroll down to the bibliogtraphy for this guy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Waters_%28columnist%29 and you will find the following book title. "Feckers: 50 people who fecked up Ireland". In his introduction he explains the word is related to the often used adjective feckless. So whilst it is frequently used in place of the other F word it's meaning is relatively innocuous. I have and will continue to use expletives where they feel appropriate for the character and the situation. I aam surprised that some American readers complain since I have found that American authors frequently use much stronger language than I would, as do Australians. The award winning "The Smack" comes to mind. I think I've written before about women writers who use the C word, a trend that I, a fairly staid elderly English gent, do find shocking.

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    1. That's interesting, Frank. I never thought of it as related to feckless. You learn something every day! Thanks for dropping in.

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  4. I swear. A lot. Just words to me, no different the hello and breakfast and computer. My characters swear if it's appropriate to who they are. Some do it a lot. Some never. Some only in their heads and not aloud. I wrote a post about this a while back, but mine didn't have any asterisks :-D. The C word though, that's a tough one. I can't say it, likely because in North America it is normally said with such misogyny and hate. I have used it in my books though. Only once, spoken by an abusive husband throwing verbal punches at his wife. Perfectly appropriate in the context.

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    1. Don't tell anyone, Julie, but I swear quite a lot too! And I wouldn't use asterisks in my novels, I'd use the whole word. If they say it, they say it! Was it in Mazie Baby? I loved that book!

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  5. I haven't noticed any untoward effing and blinding from your characters Jenny, so you're doing fine by me! This swearing issue is one I've pondered over long and hard in my YA books. I know (I have teenage sons!) that teenagers swear A LOT and that it means very little to me. I also know that many parents object to their offspring reading books with swear words in them, and I don't want to alienate that part of my potential buying audience ... I have compromised by allowing the older darker characters to swear and making the teenagers unrealistically clean-speaking except on very rare occasions. I've had no problems from teenagers but a few disapproving comments from adults ...

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  6. PS I've started to use 'effing' in place of 'f***ing' and find that can work quite well. Stole the idea from Patrick Ness!

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  7. Yes, that's interesting Gill. Just what I was trying to get at really. 'Effing' would certainly work for some characters - but others just wouldn't bother with it!

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  8. If we're talking dialogue then yes, I include the f word quite a lot. Listen to real-life conversations... the worst offenders I find are young, middle to upperclass women. A lot of my character's swear, but not all of them. I write about real situations so as an author I think it's important to put personal preference to one side and get into the head of the character. Fear of offending readers with swear words is a sticky wicket because where do you draw the line with offence?
    Having said all of that, there are limits. I think the overall tone of the book needs to be respected too. As in all things, moderation and restraint can be more effective, but to remove it totally wouldn't be realistic, for me.

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    1. Wisely put, Jan - and I'm with you. I'm coming to the conclusion I shouldn't pussyfoot around quite so much! I do think one or two of my characters would naturally swear a little more than I let them. :-)

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  9. Really interesting post, Jenny - as is the question! I did notice the F swearing from one of your characters but that might have been because you don't normally use it and it stood out. However, if it fits the characters... Personally, I don't mind the odd swear word in context but find it boring in a novel where it's used too much (like some crime books) as it then dilutes the impact.

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    1. Yes, I agree it's about impact - but some people do actually swear quite a lot! And that should be reflected in their dialogue.

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  11. Thought you might like this take on swearing: http://www.buzzfeed.com/genamourbarrett/things-all-sweary-girls-are-tired-of-hearing#.qfL7q8lle

    It made me laugh.

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    1. Loved these Mary! I was trying to find a cartoon to illustrate this ...

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    2. Our friend Julie Frayn posted them on FB - wonder if your post was the catalyst for doing so?

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    3. No, actually - I missed that!

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    4. It was on her own FB, not eNov

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  12. Just popping in to make a correction. In my original comment I referred to a book I named as "The Smack". It should, of course, have been "The Slap". An award winner by a (male) Australian author. From memory, the C word's first appearance is about half way down page 1.

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  13. I have always firmly believed that bad language, like explicitly described sex, has to have a point in the story and not be there just because an author can write it in - it has to affect the story in some way. That said, a character whose character is as it is BECAUSE he or she swears a lot is just as valid....hmm,,, thorny subject, eh?

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  14. It depends on the book, I think. In a light, fluffy romance, any swearing would come as a shock and might well offend the reader. In another genre, and under certain circumstances, it would seem silly if a character didn't swear.

    If possible, I feel the reader should be warned about anything, such as swearing or sex scenes, which might offend them so they can avoid it if they wish. A hint in the blurb such as 'gritty', 'graphic', 'shocking' or 'steamy' should be enough to prepare them for such things.

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    1. But what level is going to shock? Low for some people, very high for others. But I do like 'gritty'.

      Thanks for contributing, Patsy.

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