Colorful Language – Pro’s and Con’s


Is it appropriate to use colorful (i.e. foul) language in your communications, i.e. when quoting someone else?

This question came to me recently from a friend who is probably a better speaker than I, but read my post on language use and decided to ask for a more specific opinion.

First and foremost, a quote is a quote. If you decide to change the quote (i.e. remove a word you don’t like and replace it with one you do) without changing the meaning, that is called paraphrasing…not quoting.

If you want to quote someone, you need to say what they said.

Second, do you need that part of the quote to make it effective, or to make your point? Would a similar (i.e. clean) quote from another source work? Will paraphrasing best help you with your point? If you’ve answered those questions and decided you need the quote, then use it.

Oh wait…did you consider your audience? For instance, a pastor can easily say “Hell” in a sermon where he is describing the place in the biblibal sense. But his audience might not appreciate an alternate usage, such as “Should you go out and sin? Hell no!”

Your audience may not be a church group. However, a professional setting such as a presentation at work or in front of a local professional group (i.e. Rotary, Chamber, or Project Management Institute chapter) may have similar sensibilities.

Even those in your audience who occationally curse in thier own conversations may be put off but an unnecessary four-letter word. That may not seem fair, or even be fair, but that doesn’t matter. If the language isn’t appropriate for your audience, change the language. It’s no different than if you used a series of accounting acronyms on an audience of lawyers. If the laungage doesn’t fit…it doesn’t fit.

Can you find an occation where it is appropriate to violate that rule? I’m sure you can. I tried it out just a couple of paragraphs ago. And I wasn’t even quoting a real person, just providing a fictitious example.

In the end, it’s your credibility on the line. You make the call.  You can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to please everyone, so decide which niche is paying the bills and find your fit with them. When in doubt, you’ll never be blamed when you err on the side of professionalism.

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