Strong language in books: not so common as one might think

After addressing my great discomfort with the number of strong and vulgar language in J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, I looked at other bloggers’ reviews on the book, and I was perhaps a tiny bit surprised that few expressed any frustration with that issue. Several that I commented on basically did respond that they thought that the really, really frequent use of harsh language felt “authentic” to them.

So I decided to do a little analysis of how frequently the f-word, for instance, pops up in popular books to see just how much use readers are “used to” or tolerate.

My ratings website, Rated Reads, features nearly 1,000 reviews of a variety of fiction, nonfiction, and young adult books. Of those, only about 175 are rated “high” and a few are rated “DIRT” (for “don’t invest reading time” — not because of the quality of the writing, but just because of the offensive content). I thought that it would be interesting to see how many uses of the f-word tend to be used among those books my reviewers and I have already rated “high,” which means in terms of language, more than five or six uses of the f-word.

Here’s the breakdown: 17 of the “high” ratings have no use of strong language (they’re rated high for detailed sexual content); 91 have between 6 and about 15; 31 have between 20 and 40 uses of the f-word; and only 15 have more than 50 uses of that strong word (or the very rare c-word).

My conclusion? Writers of the most “popular” or “critically acclaimed” books, which are sampled fairly well on Rated Reads, don’t tend to use the f-word much more than 15 times. Only a very few use it very liberally, 50 times or more.

Which is why J.K. Rowling’s book for adults seemed so outrageous to me: she must use the f-word 100 times or so (and the c-word at least once), not to mention a liberal use all the other “milder” language. That puts The Casual Vacancy into a very small group: only about 1 percent of books, according to my sample of about 1,000 books, use strong language that casually.

It brings me back to wondering why authors use strong language. Readers who “defend” the liberal use of harsh language say it’s because the authors are being “authentic.” Especially when it comes to high school-age kids, they say, that kind of language is used all the time. I don’t argue that notion. It’s true that one can hear a lot of bad stuff in a school hallway. And then there are different groups in society that tend to use that kind of language very frequently and without any thought for what it says about them. But if most authors would hope to be “authentic,” then why do so few actually use that kind of strong language very often? In a book of 300 to 500 pages, my “most common” group of usages of the f-word only feature about 6 to 15 uses of it. That’s actually not too “true to life,” one could argue.

In fact, a lot of the books that readers really love don’t have any use of the f-word, or very limited use of it. It would seem that those authors, who write well and with large followings, don’t feel a need to use “authentic” language. Hm.

Most of the books out there that are really entertaining or thought-provoking, that open a window into other worlds of all sorts, succeed at transporting us as readers, making us think and experience other places and groups of people, and do the job we want them to do — most of the time without using really harsh language (even if the characters, places, and situations might genuinely call for that kind of language if they were to be completely “authentic”). Are most of us complaining that they don’t use more authentic language? No. But when an author does use a lot of bad language in the service of being authentic, people just say, “Well, that was authentic.” Where’s the outrage here? If only a small percentage of writers (in this case less than 1 percent) really go for it and use tons of vulgarity, why don’t they stand out from the crowd that doesn’t write with tons of that trash?

I’ll let you all ponder on these facts and draw some of your own conclusions. Then comment and let me know what you think.

All I want to say to conclude is that in real life, yes, there is plenty of “authentic” rampant use of vulgarity and harsh language. I hear it sometimes, and I heard it when I was in school. My high-schooler hears it at her school. But given the choice, we both try to avoid it as much as we can, because regardless of what we’re “forced” to hear, we still don’t like it, and we haven’t “gotten used” to it. I avoid the groups of people and places where I would be likely to hear that kind of abuse of the English language, and likewise, I try to avoid books and movies that contain that language. I don’t HAVE to read or watch those books or movies or TV programs. I have a choice. And I choose to stay away from them.

Reading life

lifeandlims View All →

I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.

7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I have always been a fan of harsh language in books. That said, I have always been a fan of harsh language in books when used effectively. Unless your main character is the leader of a drug cartel and the whole story takes place in the middle of a high intensity race to escape the police, people do not drop vulgarity on a regular basis. Only the annoyingly angry do that. However, saving an f-bomb for the precise explosive moment can always heighten the intensity of a critical scene. Because, whether it should or not, vulgarity jumps off the page. The reader instantly goes, ‘WOAH! Ok. He’s ticked off now!” It’s a tool to be used. Using it too liberally will just dumb down the effect and likely offend a lot of people (or at the very least make them uncomfortable).

  2. I think that bad language isn’t essential but in certain books it possibly does make it more authentic. I have read a couple of books by Martina Cole and the type of people she writes about probably do swear all the time, I do feel it could be calmed down though. I feel there is never the need to use the c word and other swear used she be used to add dramatic quality. When swear words are used all the time they fail to do that. Great post.

  3. Harsh language in books rarely bothers me. Everyone has a different tolerance level. An article in Mass Communication & Society (May 2012) that focuses on profanity in books for children and teenagers concluded that books include a lot of profanity, while I looked at their study and thought it wasn’t really a big deal, particularly in books aimed at teenagers. Other parents would have a different opinion. I don’t know how I would feel about the profanity in JK Rowling’s latest book, as I haven’t read it yet. I would hope she has a reason to use the strong language (because I think every word should be chosen carefully) other than to separate The Casual Vacancy from Harry Potter.

    • Yes, everyone has different levels of “tolerance.” And I have opinions about vulgarity and profanity as they relate to myself as an adult reader and to my children as young readers. Some people just really don’t care about harsh language. But plenty of other people do. I would just like to see society as a whole be less vulgar. With J.K. Rowling’s book, I just don’t see how THAT MANY occasions of strong language could possibly all be “chosen carefully.” I do think that words matter, and word choice reveals something about a writer’s skill and care.

  4. The concept intrigued me, I thought without the bad language which at times was unnecessary e.g. the Computer situation, and the words referring to female anatomy where over the top for the actual story. It would have been told far better, and much more readable without that. May be then the teenagers could have enjoyed the book, saw a side of reality that Harry Potters little world couldn’t really show them.
    Open their eyes to the real world and what its really like out there, poverty, deprivation and even the rich in the book seemed not so rich. The snobbery was interesting because it happens, all that part of the book was an acceptable level of interest.
    The novel its self was penned well, as are all Jo’s books and there was an element of tension.
    Teens would have been able to relate on all levels to her teen characters without the wands.
    Tune in to TV most of the soap opera’s and dramas, are sex, alcohol, drugs, murder and smashing up cars.
    Tune in to the News and much the same is happening.
    We can’t shelter children from this, not even the little ones can be sheltered in the wake of gun tragedies, little ones cannot be protected from the real world. How sad is that, what happened to the innocence of childhood.

    So the whole book told a story, but she didn’t need to colour it with such foul language, and that’s what made me trash her latest novel and think about sending her Potter novels to jumble sale.

    I won’t be reading another book by Joanna Rowling that’s for sure.

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