There are a number of reasons for the apparent decrease in reading in the world, from attention-span changes brought on by reader’s addiction to various “screens” to climate change.
But it might simply be a vocabulary problem.
The first time this concept came to me was about 25 years ago in a New York City taxi when a very talkative driver and I discussed local sports, politics and society in general all within the confines of a 25 minute drive from the airport to my hotel.
I am pretty certain we solved all the world’s problems with the exception of climate change, which wasn’t covered in our mobile summit conference.
Without going into specifics, he used one certain word of the “curse phylum” to describe every person, athletic team, politician, event, traffic light, pothole, bridge, tunnel, other driver, toll booth and piece of luggage. Apparently, even the football used by one of the local teams was not above being described with this word since no one could seemingly hold on to it to his satisfaction.
Fortunately, I escaped being described in this manner as I left a good tip along with the fare, which could arguably be described as “enabling” his bad behavior.
The man had a vocabulary problem. And he was just the tip of the iceberg.
So, you know, today, we literally, seriously like have this ridiculous problem with words used over and over so we get literally obsessed with certain ones. Seriously, like, so you know what I mean? So I literally heard yesterday book reading is so literally decreasing and seriously no one knows why, literally no one.
So you seriously know what I mean?
It could be a vocabulary issue. More and more people are using fewer and fewer words and we end up with reading problems. Maybe people don’t understand the variety of words found in books?
(Pause to cleanse brain…wait for it, wait for it…)
Okay, enough of this.
A few years ago, I attended a conference for authors in the broader market (not just Christian) and many of the attendees embraced the language and vocabulary of the day in their writing and found both growing readership and financial success.
For example, what this meant to those writing to teenagers is they included profanity, sexual innuendo and even blatant sexual and violent descriptions in their work, hoping to draw readers. Their deep scholarly research evidently indicated boys and girls entering puberty liked to read about sex.
Who would have figured?
I wish their word choices were limited to “so,” “I mean,” “literally,” “you know” and “obsessed.”
Instead, many writers choose the lowest common denominator and write to it. They don’t write books to transport the reader from the mire, they write to join them in the hole they are digging.
At the risk of repeating myself, this further explains the wide canyon, which separates general/broader market publishing and Christian books. For the most part, they are very far apart in just about every imaginable aspect.
Maybe my “limited vocabulary” hypothesis is not the reason book reading is in decline, but it does mean we shouldn’t join the world in the deep hole they dig with language.
Christian authors write into a world not controlled by Psalm 19 where words of one’s mouth and the meditations of one’s heart are desired to be acceptable to God.
But this doesn’t excuse the Christian writer from desiring God’s acceptance for their choice of words. And they are very different.
Dan, I literally love that paragraph where you, like, explain the problem clearly, so you know everyone can understand it.
My grandmother used to say that profanity is evidence of a paucity of vocabulary. I’m sorry your cab driver was so limited.
Thank you for this thoughtful post.
I agree with your grandmother. My mom told me that those who use profanity lack imagination…and that’s what I’ve told my two middle school daughters who encounter such language in the hallways. My 8th grader nodded, and said that made sense, since they use certain words to describe everything!
We’ve even trained our kids to answer the question, “How did you do on your test today?” with not the usual “good” but the correct “well.”
Language matters, and learning to decipher between good writing and poor writing is important (which is why we refused to let our children purchase books based on TV or movie characters…inevitably, those books were written by monkeys).
Amen! Now that’s a word I like to use. A woman in our writer’s group who claims to be a Christian said we must use foul language if we want to sell books. I don’t want to sell Christ out, so told her I wouldn’t ever use foul language. She replied, “Then you aren’t a writer.” I replied, “Then I’ll be a Christian.” Christians often fall into the word trap. I know a preacher who says “Amen” so many times in his message, it detracts. Or what about “You know?”
This is my pet peeve! I wholeheartedly agree. Profanity is an excuse for laziness, poor vocab and weak stories. Words, glorious words, there are millions of them out there! And guess what? They’re free! Pick a good one. In fact, pick two!
I suspect a dearth of words from the “curse phylum” would go all but unnoticed if a book was well-written to begin with. So maybe authors should be more concerned with that than how much profanity to use or not use.
Great thoughts, Dan. Foul language is ultimately a bore.
It is sometimes necessary to deal with it, though. Describing American, British, Aussie, or Kiwi troops in combat, you literally can’t have dialogue that does not include the all-purpose seven-letter adverb. It’s an essential part of what became known in Viet Nam as ‘boonie rap’.
And it has nothing to do with the user being a Christian or not. profanity is a literal and perhaps appropriate description of mass killing, of what is fundamentally profane.
But we don’t have to write it. We can describe its inclusion, such as “he let loose a flood of profanity”, Herman Wouk was a master of this; “The Caine Mutiny could not be published with scatalogocal or profane langue, yet he left no doubt as to its presence. My favourite passage is his description of a swearing sailor’s ‘cloacal drone’.
The one thing we cannot to is employ alternate, safer words. “Oh, darn!” rather than “Oh, ****!” just doesn’t ring true. There are people, including me, who really DO say “Oh, darn!” when stressed, but we’re not the archetypes that are needed to give a story verisimilitude.
(And I eschew profanity not out of my Christian faith, but because I believe it’s beneath the dignity of a gentleman. I’ve met far better Christians than I whose language could strip paint.)
An example of where profanity is nearly unavoidable might be a novel set in Viet Nam, and a scene describing troops going through C-ration boxes to find the most palatable meals (and to rid the boxes of items that were considered bad luck).
The most appalling concoction in the C-rat universe was ham and lima beans; they were universally known as ‘ham and *************’.Only an extremely new arrival would call them by their correct name. (And that ‘new guy’ would himself be described by an acronym beginning with…wait for it…the all-purpose seven-letter adverb, followed by ‘new guy’. It wasn’t a compliment.)
Best to leave such a scene, and the ham and…uh, lima beans out of the story.
I like your **** replacement approach for mid-sentence, Andrew. My characters aren’t prone to profanity, but when they teeter on the edge, they usually stop just before speaking the words. When they don’t, I never write it. One of my Roman-era villains let out “a string of curses that would embarrass a brothel slave,” and I think that conveys the emotion of the moment better than foul words would have.
Cindy Mahoney/Claire O'Sullivan
I do this too. ‘Cursed under my breath.’ Moves to … ‘I fought to use a respectable word and ended up with (whatever it is),’ and ‘I was trying to get that swearing habit under control.’
When it comes to so, etc, I use them judiciously. It is a battle to round up these words, but some fits a single personality and each person has a different method of speaking. ‘So … what you’re trying to say is, you wrecked my truck?’ Or she only says ‘what am I, your servant? (or the point she’s trying to make), while he is the only one to say, ‘Would you just shut up?’ I avoid the So, seriously etc. In dialogue if it is a natural way the character speaks, I may add it once or twice. And I hate the word, Dude. I did give a character that line, ‘Dude, she didn’t stop breathing, she passed out.’ The next line from an MC is ‘You’re an adult, talk like one.’
Great discussion, article.
It reminds me of the movie idiocracy. Personally I thought the film was beyond stupid but it definitely beings out the same point. If we continue to pander to the lowest, what will humanity’s eventual future look like. I am by no means recommending that anyone watch this movie, but it did cause some nervous chuckling on my part with wide eyes and a nodding head. I’m frightened by what is happening to our society.
Very interesting. My husband and I notice some people use the word “like” way too much in every conversation. “I went to the store, like yesterday and there were like lots of people there like shopping.” Just wondering if the conversation would be heard and understood more if the word “like” was not said over and over. 🙂
I went to a comedy show on Saturday. To my surprise, the two contestants who had clean routines, no swearing or sexual references, won first and second place. There is hope!
There were 10 contestants and only two with clean routines. My ears turned blue, but I was there to see good win over evil.
I teach those teenagers, whose favorite word doesn’t start with ‘ph’. It rolls off their tongues so easily that after a day in the trenches, the word bounces around in my mind. So what to do? Give them exciting stories heavy on plot and make sure the heroes are worthy ones. Skip the description and keep the language simple except for a few words on each page to give them practice defining words in context, but not a lot or they’ll close the book.
Your excellent choice of vocabulary inspired me to keep reading and writing!
Sign me Grateful and Determined. 🙂
I agree completely, Dan. When something “strong” seems required by the story, the much-maligned dash and ellipsis can be our clean-language friends. “What the…” serves just as well as spewing it all out on the page.
Although the use or non-use of profanity is certainly an issue, I would like to comment on the limited vocabulary aspect of your post. As a reader, I get bored with writers you don’t elevate their vocabulary above the common vernacular. I suspect there are three reasons for the practice. First, it may merely reflect the writer’s inabilities, which is sad. Second, it may be that the writer has chosen to dumb down the work in hopes of appealing to a broader market, which is also sad. The third reason, I suspect, is that editors have pressured the writer to tone down any writing which reaches higher. I’m not a published writer, but I’ve been writing business articles and ad copy for many years. In both areas I’ve had push back regarding words which may exceed some reader’s familiarity. My response was that the word in question was the best one available.
Yes, it is true that some writers try too hard and come across as pretentious. The trick is in raising the standard without feeling unnatural. Some writers can pull this off better than others. Truly great writers, whether Christian or not, have never hesitated to challenge the reader’s vocabulary with unfamiliar words, if the sentence was enhanced by its inclusion. As Christian writers, agents, and publishers, shouldn’t the first priority be the beauty and artistry of the work, not the supposed market requirements? If that means fewer readers, so be it. Regardless of the task before us, I rather doubt God is pleased if we diminish the quality of our work for market considerations.
Perhaps God is as offended by a boring sentence as a profane one.
“Instead, many writers choose the lowest common denominator and write to it.” This hit me hard. Not because I’m writing this way but because I find myself thinking this way. I worry so much about not offending or upsetting anyone that I end up catering to the lowest common denominator. Thanks for the reminder to rise not stoop in writing and life.
Amen! Let my words thrill and delight Him and the readers. Back to work!
I understand yours on “choosing words wisely”. The classic writers of the past did also.
Thank you for sharing a needed message.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Dan, I had to smile over your posting, but then reality struck- as a public speaking instructor, my students, like, love, like the word “like” so much that it, like, makes their, like, speeches, like twice, like as long. The record for the use of the word “like” in one of the speeches I heard was 54 times in five minutes…..and the speech was given by a male! My favorite HGTV show, Flip or Flop, has a hostess who talks about buyers being “obsessed” with whatever her design is. I think my students are obsessed with liking.
Better to be obsessed with liking than disliking, Sheri!
This touches a topic dear to my heart — literacy. It may be that half of American adults read at or below the 8th grade level (good stats are hard to find). They need more simple, good words. Who better to provide them than Christian writers?
Good article. After listening to the young generation talking with each other, or texting, I too sense a lack of vocabulary. The word “like” is uttered a thousand times in one thought. They seem to lack the words to describe how they feel. “I’m like” ………
Whose fault is this? I don’t think parents talk to their kids like my parents did. They’re willing to let games baby sit for them, so they can do their thing.
But alas, there is hope in Christ.
Several years ago I wrote on this very subject in my weekly column, “Etcetera, etc.” My focus was on the use of profanity and how the airwaves got polluted when the wrong words were chosen. Today, it seems that students are being “dumbed down” with smaller vocabularies and lower reading levels. When I finish a manuscript, I check for the reading grade level. Often, I need to change words and sentence structure to bring the writing down for the “average” reader. Those are just a few thoughts: keeping it clean and legal.
That was, like, an excellent, excellent article. Sorry, couldn’t resist. But, it was very thought provoking. I know some Christian authors do have a problem describing profanity and making it seem realistic. Recently, though, I’ve read some secular authors who do not use actual profanity, but find a way to skirt around it and make their point. Catherine Ryan Hyde is one in particular. Of course, Deb Macomber is outstanding. Thanks for a very good take on swearing in books.
Barbara V. Allison
May I also add numerous public speakers who continually misuse words and phrases, such as politicians, TV anchors, and even, sadly, some ministers and teachers, all of whom should have learned better in school? We all hear terms that can drive one crazy, such as “right?” or “you know?”, tacked to the end of literally every sentence by a famous lady recently running for our highest office; “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome”; or “me and her” or “him and she” in news by prime time anchors (or rather, while “interviewing” fellow reporters for their “expert opinions” on missile defense, etc.). ….You know?