Sunday, March 6, 2011

The other "F" word

When you miss the deadline for a contest you wanted to enter, do you say &*$#@!! Do you swear to yourself under your breath, or do you let them fly and land where they may? Do you believe these are “bad” words, or do you consider them opinion enhancers?

Regardless of where you stand on the great swear-word debate, you’ve probably heard them from those around you, your own mouth, or the mouths of the characters you read or create. What makes them work? Context.

All communication takes place within a context, and what is appropriate for some characters in certain settings will not work in others. A story meant for elementary school children would not be the appropriate place for swear words. A thriller based on a man or woman accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit probably would warrant a few expletives. When used properly, the use of swear words can lend to the feeling of helplessness, frustration, exasperation and/or anger. Within those contexts, the words sound more natural.

Consider all aspects of language when developing your characters. You can distinguish each one through the words they use to express themselves. So even if you’ve never said a curse word in your life, the salty old cowboy you created to save a town from good-for-nuthin’ horse thieves might use a few.

Context is the key.


  1. Mary,
    This is a lesson I learned way back in college when the instructor stood before the class and let loose with a string of expletives. He said words are strings of letters that have little meaning out of context; we assign the meaning. We must keep separate the author's voice and the character's.

  2. Hi Mary,
    Very interesting. You are so right about context.
    Although I don't generally swear, I've written stories with characters who use swear words. It was not easy, but if fit with the character, and I have to admit it was a little bit fun.
    Donna V.

  3. You both make excellent points. We assign meaning to all symbols, Linda, and Donna, it's kinda fun to get lost in a character.

    Have you listened to George Carlin's Seven words you can't say on television? Some versions are on Youtube. Like many words, after you say them over and over, they lose their meaning. His question is valid, though, why are some words "bad?"