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Posted at 08:30 PM ET, 10/19/2011

Profanity and The Post: The nays have it

An unscientific example, I admit, but of the 181 e-mails and phone calls that I have received so far in response to my Sunday column about when and whether The Post should allow profanity into its news pages, it’s clear the nays have it, by a large margin.

The count stands like this:

●112 said no, don’t sully your news pages with profanity, the culture is already coarse enough as is;

●44 said use it but only when appropriate, not gratuitously, and mainly that means when quoting someone using profanity in an important context;

●6 said okay for mild words, mainly the harder versions of heck and darn but not for the f- and s-words; and

●19 said, grow up, we’re all adults, full speed ahead, write like we all talk.

So even if you put the “when appropriates” in with the ayes, the nays win by almost a 2-to-1 margin. Comparing the nays to the unqualified ayes, the margin is nearly 6 to 1.

The no voters gave lots of reasons for their opposition. They range from parents concerned about young readers to people who say that profanity is a sign of poor education, bad vocabulary, and laziness in writing. And many people said that newspapers and their online versions should set the culture’s highest standards and not descend to lower ones.

Here’s a typical note from a mother of teens:

“I feel journalists should be held to a higher standard as they have significant power to influence our society. As a mother of teenagers who are just starting to read the paper, I would like my children to be inspired by professional journalists who are well educated, thoughtful, worldly and able to convey the excitement of a story without resorting to crude, ‘common’ language.”

Many readers said that a truly creative writer can allude to the epithets, without using them. “I am sure your writers are sharp enough to paraphrase in such a way to avoid the nasty,” wrote Gil Pipkins. “If not, they should be shown the door. Keep it clean.”

Women readers generally lined up in the nay camp, and men in the aye camp, but it wasn’t down the line. Several women wrote in saying they objected strongly to Dan Zak’s use of the word for a female dog that ended up not being published in his Westminster Kennel Club story, which I cited in my column. They sided firmly with Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who says the use of swear words should be very rare.

“I applaud Marcus Brauchli for taking a stand on this particular story and not publishing this language in The Post,” wrote Carey Rodeheffer Petrie. “I would also suggest that the author, Dan Zak, receive some training in female and gender issues.”

Many people suggested the fill-in-the-blanks method for bad words, the f___ or s___ construction, something I’m not terribly fond of; I prefer employing a clever euphemism to doing that, but I understand the impulse.

Of those who favored letting language rip, they generally said that the protecting-kids argument was bogus because they all knew those words from the time they were about 10 years old. The ayes also said that using blue language — not gratuitously, but when it’s important to the story — is really a part of a newspaper’s job in telling the whole truth.

Jason Feifer, an online reader from New York, was in that camp:

“Newspapers should be fearless; softened language is fearful. In no other way does or should a newspaper fear offending the delicate sensibilities of a select few. If you were in the business of pleasing everyone, you’d never publish a story about corruption, about corporate malfeasance, about crime.

“Cautious language is frightened writing, and frightened writing is cautious reporting,” Feifer continued. “If someone says something that is forceful and worth telling your readers about, a newspaper shouldn’t shy away from it just because it includes a word everyone’s already heard.”

For more on this subject, I recommend the way the British publication the Guardian approaches the subject. It actually counts the swear words appearing in the publication over 10 years and note which words are up and down, as a reflection of trends in English swearing culture.

Adam Schrager, a reader in Wisconsin in the yes camp, said that the lawyer character Henry Drummond in the play and film “Inherit the Wind,” may have summed up this discussion best when he said,  “I don't swear just for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands.”

By  |  08:30 PM ET, 10/19/2011

 
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