The Proper Way – Language in Journalism

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the work I do in The Mental Attic and other outlets, be it a geeky piece on GeekOut South-West, a preview on KickstartVentures or any of the other sites I write for on occasion.

One thing that I’ve thought of repeatedly is language, as in what kind of language is appropriate for articles? Is it right to use profanity or rude language in an article or does that diminish your arguments? Are abbreviations or common “text-speech” allowed? Can we use pure numbers or do we have to word the amounts out (30 or Thirty)? For today, I’ll focus on profanity.

I’m a fan of Jim Sterling and Ben Croshaw, I like their writing more than I like their videos, and they don’t hold anything back when it comes to bad language. Profanity is commonplace in their reviews and articles, and in their writing voice it doesn’t feel out of place. In fact, some of their more creative uses of profanity help drive the point they are making, instead of working against them. Yahtzee in particular is quite creative in his use of obscenities and mature imagery.

I’m also a big believer in that swearing does not reflect education or intellectual ability. As Stephen Fry said, “The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.”

Finally I’m a massive fan of the late American Comedian George Carlin, whose act was all about language, about its uses and abuses, mostly by the American people. He had a once-controversial skit about the seven dirty words you can never say on TV, and if you knew them, you’d realise that nowadays those aren’t bad anymore, they’re misdemeanors at best.

With all that said, I should have no problem whatsoever with the use of profanity in my articles. But the truth is I’m not ok with it, even if that makes me a hypocrite. There are reasons of course: style, familiarity and accessibility.

The first one comes from my early days with this site. I was just starting out, unsure on what to write beyond the short stories I planned, and my greatest fear was to offend someone, so I kept the language profanity-free. As time’s gone by and I’ve worked with similarly minded editors, it’s become my style, to write my arguments, to let you know my opinions and how I feel without the use of any swearing.

This leads to the second point. I’ve now written this way for over three years, so now it’s very hard, almost unnatural, for me to write using profanity. I’m too used to writing ‘cleanly’ to use any swearing or rude language. I just can’t, even though these days I really don’t care if I offend someone, something that doesn’t happen frequently enough considering my terminal lack of political correctness.

Finally, there’s a matter of accessibility. At all times, I want everyone to read my articles, no matter their age. So writing with profanity, at least in my mind, makes the content inaccessible to minors. It’s something I’ve even struggled with now that I’m broadcasting and doing Let’s Plays. I try my best to keep the language PG-13, even though sometimes I seriously want to cut loose, especially during frustrating play sessions. And trust me, I’ve had the urge to use profanity many times to drive down a point of how much I love or hate something, but I rein it in and use other words to say the same things.

Having said so, I use the words “crap,” “damn” and “hell” quite frequently and even occasionally in my articles, because to me they’re not profanity, they’re common speech, but to some they might be very bad words.

Those are my reasons for keeping my writing “clean.” But it only applies to articles. When it comes to fiction I have no problems with profanity as it depends on characterisation. If I’m writing a very profane character, he will swear a lot. On the stories and novels I write, I try my best to make the characters sound as if they were people you could meet on the street, so the use of obscenities will be something natural and organic.

As I’ve considered these subjects, I’ve contacted friends, former and present colleagues to ask their opinions, to let me know what their feelings are on the use of profanity in articles. Without further ado, here are their opinions and my thoughts on the.

Timlah of GeekOut South-West had this to say on the subject:

Swearing is a necessary component of the English language. Yes, I said necessary. However, my view of it is that it’s to be used in a contextually applicable situation like everything else.

By throwing the F-Bomb wherever you want, you actually illegitimate the word. By saying “This ****ing game is ****ing made of ****ing cats **** and **** with a ****ing *** *****”, you make the use of all of the words in there come across trivial.

Instead, it makes me think back to one of my old posts I did for Kevs site – Which is to use insults in a proper way (because the English language is one of the best for swearing AND for insults).

For instance, if I were to insult someone for using the F-Bomb in their works repeatedly, here’s how I would do it:

You lazy, half-witted, scum-feeding, blue-bellied ignoramuses!

I can see Timlah’s point, focus not on the words themselves being bad or prohibiting them outright, but mind the context and perhaps use them efficiently. It resonates with my thoughts on Sterling and Croshaw, on how they use profanity and vulgar imagery to drive their points, instead of just flinging curses everywhere. After all, if you use something too much, the audience becomes desensitised to it.

Ben from 1001Up, echoes this sentiment:

 Wholeheartedly disagree with swearing unless absolutely necessary or in context. Feel it’s a lazy use of language most of the time.

Shawn Mills from KickstartVentures has a different point of view, not on context but on publication:

I think the use of language depends on the audience of the publication. It then comes down to an in house style. If I read something like “well this game was just a smoking pile of shit” on IGN I’d think lazy backwater writing. If it was on a publication like Rolling Stone it’d match the style.

I don’t agree with this, as I feel it’s a double standard, making it fine for certain publications to use certain language but prohibiting and even ridiculing others for their use. I’ve always been a believer that rules are for everyone.

Wes Platt, Main Writer at Prologue Games for their Noir adventure Knee Deep and former journalist in that vortex or weirdness we call Florida, had this to say:

I think it degrades the writer’s credibility to use their voice to spew profanity – it’s usually done for cheap shock value. But if you quote a source and THEY use profanity, I think you should probably include it, but censor for taste.

I’ve seen this reflected in printed media quite often, though just as often censored.

Finally, Serena Nelson, writer for KickstartVentures and Cliqist, had this to say:

When it comes to using strong language in journalism I feel that it’s okay to sprinkle the occasional swear word into an article. The strongest profanity, obviously, is a no go but some of the lesser wording is usually fine. I often use words like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ in my writing and the occasional s-bomb but nothing ever stronger than that. In my opinion it adds color and personality to a person’s writing but it shouldn’t be too overused.

When we think of the language in press, we often think of big publications such as the New York Times for example, which has historically kept a very conservative stance on the use of profanity and vulgarity in its articles, with editors often removing these words from source quotes, much to the chagrin of readers and journalists alike. Yet, much like other media in the world, they’ve become more accepting of this type of language as sometimes their use is at the centre of a story. Last year, they changed their style guide to allow more freedom in their use, under the condition that the vulgarity is “essential to the reader’s understanding of a newsworthy event.”

In fact, Phil Corbett, their Associate Managing Editor for Standards, said the following when commenting on the change in policy:

The reason [for using profanity] should still be clear and the rationing stringent. While any single hell or damn may seem trivial, The Time’s thoughtful, civil tone will be diminished if the report is peppered with such language.

Tracy Grant, senior Editor for the for the Washington Post echoed this sentiment:

We’re very comfortable with our position that profanity should be used rarely and only when materially important to the broader journalistic mission.

What we consider (or not) bad language and where the line is will vary greatly between cultures, but if there is something I’ve understood from my friends’ points of view as well as those from established press, is that if you’re going to use profanity, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Make sure it’s important, that it’s essential to the reader’s understanding, as Corbett said, or as Tim and Ben mention, that it’s in the right context.

It’s still highly unlikely I’ll ever use hard profanity though…not my thing. Though who knows, maybe someday something will come my way that I will love or hate so much I’ll have to drop some vulgarity right there just to drive the point! You can only hope!

Much like yesterday’s piece, I would love to hear opinions from our audience and from others in our community. How do you feel about bad language in written media?

Before I go I leave you with the man, George Carlin:


Related Article (And source for quotes):

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I love everything readable, writeable, playable and of course, edible! I search for happiness, or Pizza, because it's pretty much the same thing! I write and ramble on The Mental Attic and broadcast on my Twitch channel, TheLawfulGeek

5 thoughts on “The Proper Way – Language in Journalism”

  1. I personally don’t mind profanity. I think I use profanity in every review that I write and my mindset is simple. If you don’t like the way I write don’t read it :].

    I won’t change for anyone and I’ve been attacked quite a few times for my opinion already.

    This was an excellent write up dude :]. Keep it up.

    1. Could you give me an example of the “level” of profanity you use? Is there a line you don’t cross, for example a word or a series of words you say “no, that’s too much”?

      1. I wrote an article about N4G with quite a bit of profanity in it. You can check it out if you want –

        As far as my “line” goes I don’t really have one. I just be myself and write my honest opinion down on my blog.

        I haven’t come across anything that I’ve been uncomfortable writing yet and hopefully I never will. I’m comfortable with the way I write and I won’t write something that I wouldn’t say in a conversation with someone I know. I use profanity a lot so it comes natural to me I guess.

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