"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 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 Nic Sheff's "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines," which contained around 500 swear words in its 336 pages, or Cecily von Ziegesar's "Gossip Girl" series, which contained the F-word 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 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."
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 developing a system 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.
Reach Dana Ferguson at email@example.com.