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Four-Letter Words: Don’t Use Them

February 18, 2013

By Dean Murphy

In the mid-1950s before scented soap was all the rage I learned a valuable lesson.

Gone with the Wind still blew through movie theatres in the Deep South two decades after the 1939 release even Yankees enjoyed.

One July afternoon my teenage brother jived to Jailhouse Rock on a transistor radio while my sister watched monochrome TV to learn new dance steps from American Bandstand. Mom interrupted my reading the latest Highlights for Children magazine and told me to get five tomatoes, six ears of corn, three cucumbers, and a “good amount” of okra from the garden for supper. Impersonating the debonair Rhett Butler, I said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a…”

My irrepressible imagination would have construed cherry-scented soap as that flavor.

Having reached dubious maturity, and far from those eyes in the back of Mom’s head, I can now use four-letter words. The only thing is writers should obviate certain obscene verbiage.


Mary Burton is the bestselling author of 24 thrillers in the Romantic Suspense genre, and an upcoming FWA conference Person of Renown, workshop host, and FWF Celebrity Author. She composed a video entitled Writing One Draft at a Time, and condensed it to an article for The Florida Writer, Vol.6, m2. She advised eschewing “ly” words and weak ones such as very, that, just, felt, stuff, then, even, only, have, been, like, were, down. Most from a longer list happen to have four letters.

Mary Burton

Monarch author Stephen King’s On Writing cautions against using “wooden prose” like Ayn Rand’s, though I adore and have a first edition of her 1957 iconic 1,168-page tome about John Galt’s individualism and capitalism. Writing styles change in 56 years, and perhaps Russian immigrant Rand wrote mechanically having learned a new language, but she incorporated many things Burton now suggests avoiding. As example, “The story on the front page announced that upon taking over the San Sebastián Mines, the government of the People’s State of Mexico had discovered that they were worthless—blatantly, totally, hopelessly worthless.”

Could “Mexican government” replace seven words, notwithstanding 20/20 hindsight editing and grammar-check computer software programs? Is “front-page story” smoother? What does Burton think about using three consecutive “ly” words? No doubt, Shakespeare’s prose in a grammar check would crash a computer.

Not only should writers ditch the four-letter words Burton mentioned, it’s our mission to describe scenes accurately. Five decades ago, Mom told me to get a good amount of okra. Blowing bubbles en route to the garden, I didn’t dare ask how many okra pods.

If someone told “Dragnet” Detective Joe Friday a thief stole a “good amount” of money, how much is that?

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