by Jennifer Price Mahoney, Interim Director, University Writing Center
In 1972, comedian George Carlin released a now-famous routine called “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV.” When the routine was broadcast, uncensored, by a radio station in California, an indecency lawsuit was launched that cast a spotlight on public language; testimony included examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Bible (FCC v. Pacifica).
Obviously, American society has changed in the ensuing four decades since Carlin dropped his bombshell. “Dirty” words are more common, not only on TV and radio, but also in daily social interactions, workplaces, and even in classrooms. But what happens when “bad words” land in the writing center?
Carlin’s “seven words” were commonly considered obscene, and even today, we tend to avoid them in academic writing. The IUPUI University Writing Center has a policy against tutors using offensive language in the center when students are present. Occasionally, however, these words, plus racial slurs, and chauvinistic or sexual terms, make their way into the writing center.
When a “dirty” or “bad” word is included in student writing, tutors try to treat it as they would treat any other word. After all, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, II,ii). The word may be perfectly appropriate for the genre, audience or purpose; creative writing often includes language which tutors would not usually encounter in academic essays or research papers. If the word is not appropriate, we have to determine why.
These words then can provide tutors and writers with a distinct opportunity to talk about audience in a very obvious way: “Will your reader be offended by this language? How do you know? How might this language affect them?” It’s pretty easy to recognize the difference between dropping an F-bomb with classmates versus dropping one with your grandparents. These types of questions and examples can help student writers comprehend audience in a more concrete way.
In the end, we have to be careful with all our words, not just “bad” ones. Tutors, and indeed all members of the university community, should always err on the side of caution, especially when we are talking with or writing for someone we do not know well. Tutors must cultivate an environment where all writers feel welcome and encouraged to share their ideas; writers need to make sure their language does not get in the way of their meaning or purpose. Profanity and slurs can break down such an environment and complicate purpose unnecessarily. However, sometimes when we consider audience and purpose, we can find that, in some writing, the “bad” words are the right words.