"Fair is foul and foul is fair" takes on a new meaning in books written for adolescents as the fairest characters take on the foulest language, according to a new study.
The study published in the May 18 edition of Mass Communication and Society revealed that most of the profanity in adolescent novels comes from the most-popular, wealthy and attractive characters.
Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne analyzed the top 40 novels on The New York Times best-seller list for teenagers from 2008.
She found 35 of the books contained profanity, much of which came from the books' most admirable characters.
"They were supposed to be the top 40 books aimed at teens so we thought they should be pretty tame," Coyne said. "For the most part they were pretty tame, but there were a handful that had significant amounts of profanity."
Coyne said the results surprised her, and she worries young readers will follow the foul-mouthed trend.
"For the teen readers, the popular, attractive, rich characters tend to be desirable and they idolize them, so if these characters are swearing, the teens will think that's the behavior that is acceptable or normalized, and they will be likely to replicate that behavior," Coyne said.
Coyne said she was especially surprised by books such as Tweak by Nic Sheff, which contained around 500 swear words in its 336 pages, or the Gossip Girl series by Cecily Von Ziegesar, which contained the F-word specifically 50 times in around 200 pages.
Some teens are unfazed.
Robert Hebert, 13, who walked the aisles of a downtown Salt Lake City Barnes and Noble store with his grandmother Tuesday searching for good reads, said his parents don't monitor what he reads for profanity.
"They pretty much let me read whatever I want," he said.
Holly Johnson, 14, said her parents also let her read what she wants, but she finds books with harsh language often deter her from diving in.
If she reads profanity on a page, it makes her think of expletives more often, she said.
"Then you're more likely to use them if you get into a sticky situation."
Joy Layton and her son Kenneth, 12, purchased The Serpent's Shadow, a book in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Reardon, Tuesday at Deseret Book in Salt Lake City. Layton said she and her husband monitor all the books her children read.
Any book that seems too dark in content or uses excessive profanity will not reach her children's hands.
"He gets enough of that at school," Layton said.
Coyne finds the discrepancy between the profanity parents allow their children to take in surprising.
"There seems to be a disconnect in our society between hearing profanity and reading it, so often people avoid having children hear swear words, but these books can be full of them," Coyne said.
Coyne suggested that a new system be developed that would rate books like movies or video games based on their content.
No formal system of rating books exists, but websites like commonsensemedia.org aim to give parents a better idea of what their children are reading.
She said many of the books she reviewed would not have such a young audience if they were made into movies.
"So many teens read these books," Coyne said. "But for many of them, if the books were made into movies, they would be rated 'R.' "
About the study
Thirty-five of the 40 novels reviewed in a study led by a BYU professor contained at least one curse word.
One novel, Tweak, by Nic Sheff, contained more than 500.
On average, each book contained 38 curse words.