Causing Offense

last updated: 9 January 2018 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 892 words)

From time to time I get questions about “bad” language in my books. There are variants on this question, but it mostly boils down to: will I be offended by something in one of your books, Simon?

What Causes the Offence?

The question of whether someone will be offended is tricky because—like beauty—offense is very much a matter of personal taste and preference, and the factors which may cause offense vary.

Some people are offended simply by the use of “bad” words. Irrespective of how or why the word is used, offense is taken.

This is further complicated in that people have different attitudes to different words—people can be upset by one word, but not another. Offense can also occur when “bad” words are used in a contextually inappropriate manner. People may be (comparatively) relaxed about the use of language where they feel strong words may be justified, but not where the use feels contextually wrong (for instance, swearing at a child).

For others, offense is not taken by bad words. Instead, offense can be taken by apparently clean words being used in a disparaging manner.

And just to be clear, there is no right and wrong here. If you find something offensive, then it is offensive.

Those “Bad” Words…

You will note I’ve talked about bad words and put bad in quotes. As you will have guessed, this is because there is no empirical scale of offense—some words are seen as being mildly offensive, others are felt to be very offensive.

Most offensive words have their roots in one of the following areas:

  • body parts/bodily functions
  • racial/ethnic/religious heritage
  • sexual behavior and sexual preference
  • gender identity
  • disability
  • age

But the issue is not a simple as: body part reference = offensive (as one example). There is a difference between anatomically labeling a body part and using a slang term for the same part. The biological label may be acceptable where the slang term may cause offense.

While not getting into the specifics of offensive language, if you’re looking for a sensible, dispassionate take on what language is considered offensive and what isn’t, Ofcom (Office of the Communications Regulator, the UK communications regulator) published a report in 2016 about Attitudes to potentially offensive language and gestures on TV and radio.

This report is a good starting place for considering which words may cause offense. However, before you click the link, I must caution you that there are a lot of “bad” words in there. If you are liable to take offense, please don’t follow the link. Then again, if you’re looking for new and different ways to offend, that report is made for you and will provide some useful additions to your vocabulary.

Why Use Bad Language

So—as an author—if I know that there are words and phrases that offend people, why don’t I just avoid them? It is easy to avoid giving any offense, so why go near the edge?

The answer is short and simple: because using colorful language has a dramatic purpose.

Bad language can connote many facets, for instance it can show immaturity in a character, a lack of education, habitual behavior, or a need (on the part of the character) to conform to social norms.

Equally, language can show aggression or poor impulse control. But most significantly, it will often demonstrate anger or extreme emotional distress, particularly with a character whose language has previously been restrained. If a father watches as his daughter is murdered, you wouldn’t expect him to say: “Oh dear, that’s a pity.”

If a character is going to be harassed or threatened, then typically, the antagonist’s choice of words will not be polite. If a character is suffering, then there will be some ugly words, and if the language doesn’t reflect a credible exchange, then the reader will have difficulty suspending their disbelief.

My Choices

I can use any words, but what do I do in practice?

For me, as an author, nothing is off limits—I want to paint with all the colors. For each character, there are gradations of emotions and one way to show a character under duress is through the change in their speech patter, including but not exclusively, through the change in their choice of words. Therefore, when warranted by the situation, my characters will use bad language.

But the use of bad language is, in my opinion, moderate.

To my mind, bad language gets old very fast and once I’ve gone as far as language will take me, there is nowhere else to go, so I only want to go to the maximum when the story needs me to do so.

Let me give you an example of what I see as moderate. In Bag Man, one of those bad words is used. Of all the words that people tend to find particularly offensive, just one is used, and then it is used in a single instance. Within the context of the situation in which Leathan Wilkey finds himself, I think the use is justified and shows the reader Leathan’s emotional state in the way that descriptive text would fail to capture.

Will you be offended by the language in my books? Maybe, but I hope not. Or at least, I hope you will agree that any offense reflects what the character feels and is justified within the context.

Filed under

Category: writing
Tags: bad language   offense   Ofcom