Feb 20, 2010

To Swear or Not to Swear, That is the Question

by Cindy R. Williams

I have been following a thread regarding the use of profanity in literature on the ANWA Critique email group. This is a vital writing issue to all of us and a social issue to boot.

Profanity is the norm in most conversations one hears in supermarkets, hardware stores, movie theaters, the ballet, the zoo, the Post Office, you name it. It’s accepted in movies and has become quite common on TV.
Now I'm here to tell you, there is swearing, and there is SWEARING. The absolute worst swearing is when the Lord’s name is profaned.

I’m often at my children’s schools, and hear the Lord’s name in vein by all grade levels of students including Kindergartners. I have a habit of asking anyone, young or old, if they are praying. They look at me with confusion and I reply, "You just called upon the Lord so I thought you must be either saying a prayer or ready to pray." Sometimes the whole idea is beyond the perpetrator's grasp because the disrespect of the Lord's name is such an everyday and casual part of their conversation. Some responses I have noted include confusion, laughter, contemplation, being offended, or chagrined. Oh well, let the chips fall where they may.

I attended a ten week writer’s class with five other women. All professed to be Christians. I quickly learned that being Christian does not bring unified language standards among differing religions. After many weeks of listening to one particular lady read her scenes full of profanity and vulgarity, I finally couldn't stand it anymore. When it was my turn to voice my critique, I asked her why she felt that Kyle, her 17 year old college physics genius, had to have such a potty mouth. I added that he sounded more like a fish wife on the docks, than an intelligent and brilliant young man. She glared at me for a moment quite stunned then said she thought it would make him seem like he was more mature. He had been in college since he was 14 so he needed to put on airs to act like a man and be taken seriously. I grinned at her and asked if cussing really makes one seem more mature and manly? I quoted my Dad, “Only uneducated or lazy people swear, because they either don’t know any better, or are too lazy to use their brains to think of real words.” I finished with, if he is such a genius then why does he use such dumb words?

It seemed the entire class was in shock. I wondered if I would be asked to leave for the evening, or even for the remainder of the course. My professor finally broke the uncomfortable silence. What she said surprised me. She told her that I was right. A young man with his great intelligence, and the other abilities she had given him in her novel would not speak like a boy from the gutter. She had built a very strong character, but by cleaning up his dialog, he would be even more impressive. His filthy language just didn't fit his character. After class, some of the other ladies thanked me for standing up for my convictions. They too had been very uncomfortable but didn’t know what to do about it.

Okay, so I didn't really win a moral victory that profanity just is no good, but at least I didn't have to sit in class every week and have her scenes grate on my soul like screeching chalk on a board.

As writers, we have a great opportunity to stand and be counted. We each have a decision to make as to where we personally stand on this issue and how we will act when given the request by an editor or publisher to add this everyday common vernacular into our novel or they won’t publish it. Those of us avoiding profanity are quite peculiar in today’s society.

Some will feel justified to use "just a little" profanity to sell their books. Some will cave in compelety and others will consider them sell-outs. It's not for me to judge what another person chooses to do. Everyone is entitled to their free agency and their opinion. I believe the world has plenty of books full of profanity. In fact, I would dare say that the quota for vulgar language in literature has been filled. As for me, I feel the world needs wholesome literature and wholesome voices and I choose to help fill that niche.


  1. Good for you! I like how you ask if people are praying when they say the Lord's name. I'll have to try that one.

  2. Bravo. You were so right in your critique. It is hard to stand up against vulgar language in today's society, but by your doing so you made a strong impact. Thank you.

  3. Hooray for you Cindy! Reading about your experience gives me courage to do the same! Thank you! It is such an honor to be your friend! I am going to share your post with my kids. hugs~

  4. Thanks Marielle, Rebecca and Kari. I do get on my soap box about some things, and this is one of them. I hope that many more people will com forward and bring a movement of wholesome works for all, especially children.

  5. One thing I love about fantasy novels is that mostly the cursing they do is made up gods. Does that make it ok? Does to me what do ya'll think?

  6. I LOVE you Cindy! <3 <3
    Well Said! You GO girl! Nothing like the power of a daughter of God to rise up and stand for truth and righteousness. After all... this is my mission too. (thanks for the great reminder- and inspiration! You Rawk!
    *BIG HUGS*

  7. Thanks all! It is nice that others feel the same.


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