Swearing in YA Light Compared to Real Life

Last week, the YA world exploded with reaction to a study out of Brigham and Young University about the amount of swearing in teen novels and whether a rating system is needed. Check out the following links for more information and reactions from the American Library Association and authors Gayle Forman and Kiersten White:




I wasn’t going to respond only because others were quicker on the draw and perfectly captured the insanity of a study based on 40 books. For every book published with a swear-word in it, I’m sure there’s one that has none, but that kind of study wouldn’t get attention. Also, there’s the issue that a book can have no foul language but deal with mature content.

I decided to add something to this conversation because I work with teens daily. I’m going to focus specifically on the swearing issue. Here’s what I know from first-hand experience:

  • The idea that books with four-letter words are polluting their minds is ludicrous. My students are all reluctant readers (meaning they hate to read and often do not read) and they swear as often as ducks quack. My guess is they are being influenced by Twitter, music, Facebook, television, video games, their parents, and more than anything…their friends.
  • Students who do read (I’ve taught them, too) also swear. Shocking, I know, but true. So, they may be influenced by books, but chances are they are also influenced by Twitter, music, Facebook, television, video games, their parents, and more than anything…their friends.
  • The swearing in YA novels is child’s play compared to the swearing that goes on in a high school. I read a lot of teen literature, and I can say not a single novel I have read comes close to the profanity I hear every day. Let me be clear, students do not swear at me. They wouldn’t dare, and if they did, they’d receive a verbal reprimand and an office write-up, which is usually followed by a detention, at the least. I don’t tolerate that kind of disrespect. The swearing I’m talking about is casual, when they talk to each other in the hallways, cafeteria, and classrooms. If authors were trying to capture realistic teen-speak, about half of all dialogue would be four-letter words, the n-word, or sexual references. The reality is that YA literature is squeaky-clean compared to the way teens really talk with their friends.

Don’t believe me? I dare you to check a teen’s Twitter account, Facebook page, or text messaging. Go ahead, I dare you. If your teen doesn’t have any of these and/or is not the swearing kind, awesome! I mean that. Thank you. Being the verbal police all day in school and then doing it at home with my 5-year-old who likes the words “poopie” and “butt” lately is entirely exhausting.

I hope my efforts at home will prolong the inevitable–that “poopie” and “butt” will turn into “shit” and “ass.” Like the teens I teach, my daughter will probably think swearing is part of growing up. At 17, she’ll be able to drive herself to school and an after-school part-time job. Why, then, couldn’t she drop the F-bomb once in a while?

Of course, swearing does not equal adulthood, and I’m sure there are plenty of adults who don’t curse. Personally, I think overusing profanity is obnoxious, whether it comes from teens or adults. I don’t have a problem, however, with a well-placed F-bomb, or other four-letter word, in life or books.

What’s funny is that books are being called out when the language used in the YA novels I’ve read is mild compared to what I hear daily. If Brigham and Young researchers want to have some real fun, they should spend 40 days (to match the 40 books) walking around the hallways of an average American high school during passing times and start counting four-letter words.

My guess is, at the end of their little experiment, they’d call YA authors lightweights.


  • I agree entirely with everything that you said, I know that when I was in high school my friends and I generally sounded like drunken sailors, especially when there weren’t any authority figures around to yell at us.

    My main comment with this has been the same everywhere I’ve seen it. If as a parent you’re concerned with the language being used in books, I have a quick and easy suggestion. Pay attention to what your children are reading, read it with them, and then discuss the content of the books. I know I know, that sounds like – *gasp* – actual parenting and taking responsibility for raising your children. It’s crazy talk isn’t it?

    • Adam, crazy talk indeed! Lol. I totally agree with you. When I taught middle school, once in a while, a parent would ask for an extra copy of whatever book we were reading so that they could read it, too, and discuss it with their child. Bravo!

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