Hot! Popular! Swears Like a Longshoreman!

by Robert Pondiscio
May 23rd, 2012

If you’ve read more than a handful of young adult (YA) novels, you’re probably well past the point of being dismayed by the thematic darkness and swear words.  A new study by Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne finds that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers or almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.

But the number of curse words is less interesting than who’s got the potty mouth.  The characters who swear the most tend to be rich, attractive and popular, Coyne found  “From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in positive, desirable ways,” Coyne tells Science DailyScholastic blogger Morgan Baden puts it simply:  “all the cool kids are doing it.”

This is not the first time the content of YA fiction has come under the microscope.  Recall the Wall Street Journal a year ago published a piece which eviscerated the genre, noting that “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”  The medical journal Pediatrics published another bit of research by Coyne six months ago that found a link between profanity in media and teen aggression, Science Daily notes.

Scholastic’s Baden defends the blue language in YA books “where the characters are so vivid, and so well-written, that I couldn’t imagine them speaking any other way than the way the author chose them to speak.”  The readers of YA novels, she points out are “in the process of forming their identities, and sometimes that includes testing out ways of speaking and exploring just how much impact their voices can have.”

“F— it,” says the website Jezebel, which its signature insouciance.  “Let’s just be happy that kids are reading at all and not get our panties all twisted up about the fact that the books they’re choosing to consume accurately reflect how their friends actually talk.”

Easy to say, but woe unto the teacher who fields the angry call from a parent that starts, “My daughter says she chose this book from YOUR classroom library…”   Realistic fiction? Literary quality? Yeah, good luck with that.

Should there be warning labels on YA novels?  Shrink wrap them and put them on the highest shelf? “Unlike almost every other type of media, there are no content warnings or any indication if there is extremely high levels of profanity in adolescent novels,” Coyne says. “Parents should talk with their children about the books they are reading.”

Coyne’s study appears in the journal Mass Communication and Society.


  1. My middle school has a strict PG policy, so keeping my independent reading shelf filled with “appropriate,” interesting, and contemporary YA novels has been a real trick. I make exceptions here and there when a book merits inclusion, but I am having real trouble finding good recommendations for my strong readers that won’t get me in trouble with parents and administration. That’s one of the main reasons I keep it stocked with classics.

    If the kids only knew how many Elizabethan obscenities they are reading each day in our Shakespeare selections…now THAT would make class a bit more lively.

    Comment by Jess — May 23, 2012 @ 10:25 am

  2. As Coyne notes, it comes down to our role as parents.

    The language (and ubiquitous sexual imagery) to which our children are exposed is a given. Like the rain in Matthew it falls on the just and unjust alike.

    The question is how we equip kids to deal with it. Which is probably not, as Jezebel recommends, by saying “F*** It”

    Important to also note that literature like Catcher in the Rye has been the subject of banning efforts for years. As Savanarola showed us, it’s slippery slope from burning books to finding yourself tied to a stake with flames licking at your toes.

    Comment by matthew — May 23, 2012 @ 11:37 am

  3. As a school librarian I endeavor to buy fiction books that speak to my students’ experiences and will fly off the shelves. The tools I use to pick out appropriate books are professional reviews from periodicals like Booklist, School Library Journal, etc., as well as blogs. Yes, some of these books have colorful language, but as long as there is a review in a professional journal that recommends the book for the age group I serve, I have some measure of protection. It’s also important to have a selection policy and a request for reconsideration form in case an angry parent shows up. For the parents who want to know more about what language and content is in the books, movies and television shows their children consume, they should ask their kids (!) or check out a website like where one can search for various types of media and get a detailed list of all the possible offensive content. My personal opinion is that a book is a pretty safe way to encounter complex situations in which this kind of language often occurs.

    Comment by Laura — May 23, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  4. Jess: My kids loved everything by Rosemary Sutcliffe. Her historical fiction is mostly set in Roman Britain and has young male protagonists. She also has versions of the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Tristan and Isolde, the Arthurrian Legend, Boadicea etc. They are so well-written and have such great vocab, I can read and enjoy them. Although my kids read them from about 3rd grade, they would be MS for many and HS for some My DIL has acquired some, (the classics, I think) for used with her 9th graders. Many are out of print, but are available through Barnes and Noble’s used book network – and others, I’m sure. Given the lack of history in ES-MS, a brief overview of the Romans’ history in Britain is probably necessary for most kids. BTW, those novels are in a time sequence, although each story stands alone.

    Comment by momof4 — May 23, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

  5. Addendum; I can’t recall any profanity in any of Sutcliff’s books, or any inappropriate sexual material; they’re just good, clean stories.

    Comment by momof4 — May 23, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

  6. I don’t have a problem with darker themes in YA books if they serve a purpose (like in the “Hunger Games” trilogy). What I have a problem with it is where it seems like the authors are just trying to be “edgy”. I’m definitely not in the camp of “as long as they’re ready, who cares what”. There are so many excellent books out there and only so much room in the curriculum. Every mediocre contemporary novel included comes at the expense of some excellent book not taught.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — May 24, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

  7. It’s odd to think that conventional books may become the last hiding place for swear words left in our digital age since there’s no quick way to search a novel of the older medium. I can think about vocab. materials that I was barred from accessing for me students via the Web at my school two years ago because there was some offending character string, just as you’d find in the OED, deep in the web site. My school system, however, eventually unblocked the web site at my request.

    Comment by Andy M. — May 26, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  8. Might as well repeat what I said on Facebook, quoting from one of my favorite thriller writers, Lee Child. (Great last line here):

    QUESTION: Your writing style has been described by at least one reviewer as “muscular,” yet you limit the number of four-letter words, which in a violent work seems almost paradoxical. Would you care to comment?

    ANSWER: I don’t use any of the traditional four-letter words at all. Why not? There are a few reasons. One, I just couldn’t write them down. Didn’t feel comfortable. Which is weird, because I use them all the time, privately. Two, it’s actually a feature of custom and practice that U.S. Army officers — which Reacher was — don’t use them. Enlisted men and women do, but it’s a kind of code that officers don’t. And three, real people use four-letter words so constantly that you couldn’t imitate it verbatim on the page, or every book would be 1,000 pages long … so already you’d be editing them into an unrealistic infrequency. … So I set myself a challenge: portray tough, desperate people without any [four-letter words] at all. I think it works.

    Lots of people have written to me to say they appreciate their absence. Nobody has ever written to me asking me to put them in next time.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 30, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  9. A parent told me this story:

    Several years ago, when her daughter was taking a h.s. English course, the teacher gave the class a book to read and told them to find a dirty word for women (I think it was) that occurred within the first 200 pages.

    If they could tell her what the word was, she said, she would know they’d read the book.

    My friend’s daughter couldn’t find the word because she didn’t know what the word was. (It started with a ‘p’).

    Her friends had to explain it to her, and she was upset when she found out.

    Obviously, at some point this girl (who I think was a freshman) would have come across the word and learned its meaning. But that wasn’t the time or the place.

    Comment by Catherine — June 14, 2012 @ 11:48 am

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