Don Harris Economic Expression

“Brevity is the soul of wit”, some crotchety dead poet once opined. Never before, in the history of the universe, has this old chestnut been more cogent than right now, even though tomorrow’s messages will be even briefer and even more direct than today’s. All these tweets and chirps and updates and statuses- although they are largely either not interesting or not clever- they’re getting so compact and terse that it sometimes feels like the universe is in the process of reassembling itself anew on the head of a pin.

Although as a culture we write more than ever before, we collectively have the attention span of a baby sparrow. So what excuse can a contemporary, concise (some might say hack) writer give for the use of gratuitous and perhaps superfluous four letter words when economy of expression is at such a costly premium? What does being heard cost, you say? People’s attention spans, their livelihoods, their fucking TIME. Swearing is punctuation; it is semi-colons or parentheses or commas.

Swearing is just as powerful if not more powerful than any stylistic character with a dramatic function. The emerging writer needs to write for his audience, which is essentially a bunch of sweaty semi-literate nitwits who think others care where they went for which brunch special, who probably got their tongues stuck to a cold wet winter pole on more than one occasion. There are three types of sentences in this wild world with which to placate these idiot masses.

There are simple sentences, compound sentences, and complex sentences. A simple sentence (which is also an independent clause): THE DOG BARKS must contain both a subject and a predicate. A compound sentence links two separate ideas with an AND as in THE DOG BARKS AND TAKES A SHIT and a complex sentences is made up of possibly several ideas and definitely at least one subordinate or independent clause: THE DOG, WHO WAS OLD AND BLIND, BARKS AND TAKES A SHIT. Why am I telling you this? Because the whole point of using complex sentences is to make one idea hold greater importance than the other competing ideas in the same sentence.

Without complex sentences the mindscape of literature (or of any prosaic medium) is a vast wind scourged desert, an “optical democracy” as Cormac McCarthy once put it. Writing attempts to imitate speaking, whether we like it or not. Sentences need punctuation to add dynamics to the things people say.

Sentences need punctuation like musicians need scales. But we have invented a new grammar/punctuation and it is called Fuck that Shit. Everyone uses it, from the kids in the playground, to the dudes on the construction site, to the senile old ladies cursing that swindler door-to-door salesmen. Hell, your own Doctor would probably tell you that your shit was fucked up if it indeed was and you asked him to shoot you straight.

Swearing is dramatic like an exclamation point is dramatic, or a colon signifies a related thought to come, or a question mark denotes the slight raising of the voice on the last syllable. Yes, overuse of a word like “fuck” damages the clout its shock value is meant to reserve, like flooding the economy with money causes inflation by lessening the value of each individual dollar. But “fuck” is one versatile-ass word. You are getting versatility confused with laziness, the devil’s advocate might accuse me of, and yes, there is a certain degree of truth to that. But in another sense, swear words are grammatical punctuation marks that work on the young but elude the old. Which are you?

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