Are curse words no longer taboo in writing?

“I don’t give an obscenity.”  “Who the obscenity cares?”  “Go obscene yourself.”

Sentences like these were peppered through the  pages of  For Whom the Bell Tolls, an Ernest Hemingway novel, which I read when I was 18.  Naïve and confused, I wondered, who talks like this?

Well, of course, no one does.  But Hemingway’s publishers in the 1920s and 1930s wouldn’t allow the actual crude words Hemingway wrote to be published.  Their solution was to take out Hemingway’s expletives and replace them with the word “obscenity.”

How published writing has changed in the past 100 years!  Gradually “damn” (“Frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.”) and shit became acceptable in literature.  Now the word “bullshit” is everywhere, even in The New York Times and other publications of high language standards. Profane language has slipped into writing meant for children, too, such as the graphic novel This One Summer.  Within five frames on pages 246 and 247, “fuckin’,” “fuck,” and “fucking” are used four times in casual speech overheard by a couple in discussion

I grew up in a home where adults did not curse.  (Think Atticus Finch.)  As adults, my husband and I rarely curse, and even then, the words we use are mild.  (Think “oh, damn” or “hell.”)  Some of my children’s generation, now adults, rarely curse, but others use words like “shit” and “fuck” and “asshole” routinely, and in front of their children.  Is this a change in our spoken language, or have people always spoken this way, just not in my family.

Hemingway’s novels, after all this time, are still some of the most banned or challenged classic novels, not only in the US but around the world, according to the American Library Association.  Hemingway, with his almost immortal literary reputation, needn’t worry.  But how about us mortals?  Should we be using obscenities in our writing?  Is using them an aberration reflecting our increasingly uncivil society?  Or have past publishers, by censoring obscenities, provided literature which inaccurately reflected the thinking and speaking  of the people of those eras?

Changes in our spoken language precede changes in our written language.  Listen to the speech of people around you.  Do they use obscenities?  Do others censor them or walk away?  Do speakers edit their language depending on their audience?

If we want our writing to reflect our times, then we need to use the language of our society.  The problem is, today our American society is fragmented more than at any other time since the Civil War.  Which society are we reflecting in our writing?  Teenagers experimenting with adult words?  Men railing against their loss of jobs and power?  Immigrant women with old country values?  Working women competing against men for promotions?  Children repeating the words of their parents?

We also must think of our audience.  For whom are we writing?  Would they bristle at the use of profanity?  Would they be unaware of it?  Are they children?

The dilemma and the choice is ours.


Write first, revise second, third, fourth, and edit last

Revising and editing are distinct actions.

Revising means changing text in significant ways, such as adding or deleting words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes.  Revising means changing weak verbs to stronger, specific verbs.  Revising means changing sentence order or sentence beginnings or combining sentences or separating too many ideas in one sentence.  Revising means making big changes and should be done before editing.

Editing means polishing text in subtle ways, such as changing punctuation, spelling, and choice of synonyms and antonyms.  Editing means deleting most -ly adverbs, many adjectives, and obvious information.  Editing means making small changes, sometimes stylistic changes, and should be done after revising.

Which are revising and which are editing?

revising editing
Deleting backstory from the beginning of text
Using simple Anglo-Saxon vocabulary instead of longer, more complicated words
Replacing abstract nouns with concrete verbs
Deleting vague, qualifying words (e.g. some, never)
Deleting “that” except when needed for clarity
Combining sentences to delete unnecessary words
Adding information for clarity
Using “said” instead of “told,” “related,” “cried,” and other words saying how a person spoke
Replacing forms of the verb “to be” with specific verbs, action verbs if possible
Rewriting sentence beginnings for variety
Replacing most compound sentences or compound predicates with complicated simple sentences
Deleting overused words like “so,” “then,” “just” and “like”
Rewriting conclusions to add meatier ideas
In dialog between two people, not identifying who is speaking for each line of dialog
Writing direct dialog rather than indirect dialog.
Calculating words per sentence to keep within 15 to 20 words on average.
Looking for the kind of grammar mistakes you often make, such as run-ons, and fixing them.
Showing, not telling.

A mistake student writers make is to edit as they write, losing the flow of their thoughts.  It’s better to keep going, even though you know you spelled a word wrong and are tempted to look it up.  Writing is harder than editing which is why writers are tempted to edit as they go.  This is particularly true of perfectionists.

Editing before revising is a waste of time.  Good revising will delete many early edits.  Write first, revise second and third and forth, and edit last.

Common Core Standards expect more writing by students

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a set of academic standards in language and math which the 50 US states more or less agreed upon beginning in 2010.  The CCSS are an attempt to strengthen and unify the curricula of all states so that students from Alaska to Florida will end each year of their education with the same knowledge and skills.  For example, in all states, third graders should begin to learn how to do research, and eighth graders should master how to write argumentative essays.

In the area of English/language arts and literature, four categories of standards apply with increasing complexity as a student grows. Those categories are

  • Text types and purposes, including identifying and producing three kinds of texts:  narrative, opinion and informational.
  • Production and distribution of writing, including instruction from teachers and peers on how to plan, write, revise, edit and publish texts; and learning word processing beginning in third grade.
  • Research to build and present knowledge, including learning how to do research, how to draw evidence, how to identify and use support from literature, and how to support claims a student makes.
  • Range of writing, including from third grade onward, writing frequently over short and long periods of time for many discipline-specific tasks and audiences; using extended class time over several days to research, think and revise; and using shorter periods of time, such as a day or two, for the same purposes.

Adapting these Common Core Standards has meant many changes in language arts classes in the past dozen years, such as

  • emphasizing writing more than before in all grades.
  • expecting students to produce ever more sophisticated work.
  • requiring students to use research, not their own opinions, to back up claims.
  • requiring students to analyze evidence found in texts and to use that evidence in persuasive or informational writing rather than depending on their own experiences for evidence or for narrative subject matter.
  • requiring students to use academic vocabulary and the vocabulary of the genre they are writing about (using the words “iambic pentameter” and “couplet,” for example, when writing about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

So what does this mean for students today?

  • More writing time during class and more writing homework.
  • Doing research, especially online research, and incorporating findings into student work.
  • More focus on using the vocabulary of an educated adult.
  • Learning how to use a keyboard, computer, and software, and to produce printed, not handwritten work.

So at the end of twelve years of education—2,160 days—your child should be able to produce an eloquent essay backed by citations from various sources to support a main idea in any number of genres.

Or in other words, your child should be able to do what ChatGPT can do now in seconds.


What does “to write” mean in 2023?

I used to think I knew what it meant to write and to teach how to write, but in recent weeks I am not so sure anymore.

I’ve read how AI Chat GPT can write paragraphs hard to distinguish from student-written paragraphs.  I’ve read some of those Chat GPT paragraphs, and I can’t tell the difference.  Is this how students—those who can afford Chat GPT—will write now:  input information and receive coherent, grammatically correct output to turn in for assignments?

Since students will certainly use Chat GPT and other AI like it, what do teachers teach?  If not on the writing process, should the focus be on key words?  Should teachers  look at the output and think, well, the input must have been pretty good to achieve this good of an output, so I’ll give the student an A+ on input.  Are key words what we will be grading from now on since we can expect the actual composing will be done by a machine?

Do teachers need to ask students to weave some highly local information—the spelling bee yesterday at XYZ School, the performance of substitute teacher Mrs. Poggi last week—into their writing so that AI has no way to access that local information into its output, and so students are forced to write for themselves?

Do teachers need to look at the kind of writing AI can do well—description, for example, and historical summaries—and no longer assign that kind of writing?  Do teachers need to look at the kind of writing AI can’t do well—hypothetical situations, for example, or inference or human emotions—and and assign writing embedding those concepts?  (If General Lee had asked for your advice when President Lincoln offered him command of the Union armies at the start of the Civil War, what would you have advised him in view of his reputation then and today?)

With visual information sources (streaming TV, YouTube, video games, and Facetime) replacing more static sources (newspapers, journals, and letters) in the 21st century, is the kind of writing teachers focused on in the 20th century no longer useful to students today?  Should English teachers stop asking students to write essays determining who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and instead ask students to create a video comparing the open carrying of swords in 16th century Verona to the open carrying of guns in the US today—complete with photos of swords and guns and videos of  sword fights and gun fights?

We are living in a period of rapid flux, with the technology of 2022 already out of date in 2023.  The teacher education I received in the early 1990s was outdated then, with no mention of how to incorporate computers into learning—and for that matter, no course on how to teach writing.  I assume courses on teaching writing are now offered, but I suspect none incorporate how to use Chat GPT as a writing tool.  And by the time they do, it will be supplanted by a more advanced technology.

Which brings me back to my point:  What does “to write” mean in 2023.

Chat GPT–just another calculator, stick shift or spell check?

First three stories.

One.  When I took the SATs years ago, no calculators were allowed.  Square roots?  Do the time-consuming math in longhand.  Sine, cosine, and tangent?  Draw and label the triangles, write the formulas from memory (no formulas were given within the exam), and compute.  Today 55 minutes of the SAT allows calculators.  Some of the drudgery of the test has been eliminated.

Two.  When I learned to drive a car, I needed to learn and be tested on a stick shift.  I had to depress the clutch every time I changed a gear.  When starting uphill from a parked position, I needed to release the brake, depress the clutch and maneuver into first gear all in one quick, smooth motion or the car would stall.  But years later, I drove an automatic shift, and didn’t need to depress the clutch (there wasn’t any!) or shift gears or stress over getting into first gear going uphill.  It was so much easier.

Three.  A student wrote an essay and sent it to me online.  Squiggly lines suggested places where the software program perceived mistakes though it didn’t explain what the mistakes were.  The student clicked on each underlined word, and the software suggested corrections.  The student clicked on the suggested corrections, and the software instantly replaced the mistakes.  No dictionaries, no grammar handbooks, no need to even understand why the original mistake was wrong.

What do these stories have in common?  Technology—the kind which makes life easier.

The calculator makes computing math easier.  I still have to figure out what math to use and to input the numbers, but the calculating is done by a machine, freeing me for thinking.  An automatic transmission makes driving easier, allowing me to ignore the mechanics of driving so I can focus on the rules of driving and the actions of other vehicles.  Software backed by millions of data points and patterns  suggests writing corrections which usually are correct.

This brings me to Open AI’s Chat GPT, a controversial software which searches for patterns in millions and millions of word, grammar and sentence data.  As it finds patterns and incorporates them into its “brain,” Chat GPT becomes more and more able to suggest likely outcomes for various situations, including writing a student’s essay.

Like with the examples of technology above, Chat GPT technology makes it easier to do something—in this case, to write logically.  You can ask Chat GPT for a paragraph about many things you need written, and you can suggest a style and vocabulary, such as that of a fourth grader.  Chat GPT can do that.  It searches its vast database for vocabulary and description likely to be used in the sentences of a nine-year-old, and then it writes whatever you need.

Chat GPT is at an early stage of its development.  It needs the correct input of data to produce the desired output of writing.  It can describe accurately but it cannot “think” the way a human being can think.  It can tell what has happened, but it cannot predict.  It cannot tell you what won’t happen, or what won’t work.  If programmers corrupt the inputted data, the outputted product is corrupt—perhaps not true, perhaps using foul vocabulary, perhaps written in university academic vocabulary and sentence structure rather than those of a fourth grader.  (Garbage in, garbage out.)

We are already used to baby steps in this kind of technology, as when software offers suggestions for grammar or spelling.  Teachers use this kind of help for their own writing, so they are likely to allow it for their students’ writing as well.  So why then the bru-ha-ha about Chat GPT?

Chat GPT goes beyond suggesting a synonym or a different spelling; Chat GPT can write the whole essay.  And often teachers cannot tell the difference.  Is it so different from the following story?

A college business student took an English writing class from me.  I questioned him about a paper he turned in because it seemed much better written than the student’s in-class assignments.  “Oh, I gave it to my father’s secretary, and she fixed it,” he said.  “Fixed it?”  “Well, mostly she wrote it,” he said.  He justified the situation by saying he worked for his father, and would inherit the business, and would always have a secretary to write for him.  “I don’t need to know how to write,” he said,  I explained this to the academic dean.  “Let it go,” she said.  The student graduated from a four-year college though he couldn’t write a coherent paragraph.

Is Chat GPT giving our students the latest iteration of a calculator, a stick shift, or spell check?  Or is Chat GPT giving students their own online secretaries–leveling the playing field for students who don’t have their father’s secretary to write their papers?  Is Chat GPT a bad thing?  Does it matter?