A linguistic look at YA

As some of you know, I’m currently studying to get my MA in linguistics. In my field, you can study basically anything pertaining to language. I’ve focused mostly on fiction. Specifically YA. I thought I’d share some of my early results with you guys.

What I do:

Within the broader field of linguistics, my area of expertise is in corpus linguistics. This means I use computer programs to run language analysis on large bodies of text. For my thesis, I built a corpus, or text database of YA. I’ve been comparing my database against a database of adult books and a database of younger children’s (5-14) books to see what the differences are.

Some results:

I based a lot of my research on a study out of Oxford comparing children’s literature to adult literature. One of the key findings in their study was that children’s books used a lot more words that focused on the physical world, while adult books used a lot more words that focused on time relationships.

My hypothesis, which I’m still testing, is that YA falls in between. They’re more physical than adult books, but more focused on time than children’s books. One finding of mine that supports the idea of YA being more physical is the relative frequency of words for different body parts in YA.


All counts are normalized per 1 million words

We can also see that there’s a difference in pronoun use in YA books. The word I is used much more in YA, which likely suggests that first person narration is more common in YA than adult. Also, for all groups, masculine pronouns were more common than feminine pronouns.


Finally, and this may only be interesting to hardcore linguists, the Oxford study found that modals (the words can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, and must) appeared more commonly in children’s books than adult books, with YA falling in the middle. However, while overall modal usage was highest in children’s, individual modals varied quite a bit.

total modals

modal breakdown

This is actually kind of strange from a linguistic standpoint. Modals are are pretty high frequency, so they should appear fairly evenly. Honestly, I’m still working on this part of my analysis, so if any of you lovely readers have any ideas why the charts look like this, I’d love to hear them!

Hopefully this wasn’t super boring. If you have questions or things you’d like me to include in future research, let me know in the comments. I’m more than happy to geek out and talk to you about this stuff.

5 thoughts on “A linguistic look at YA

  1. The modals chart is fascinating! Consider the connotations and psychology of those words. Y A is all about learning about what young adults can and can’t do. Adults reflect back on what they could have done, and children are very focused on future possibilities.

  2. I think the implications of the “should” breakdown is also fascinating. My brain goes to Jurassic Park (lol), “The scientists spent so much time wondering whether or not they could, they never stopped to think if they should.” Is there a correlation there with morality, with children’s literature focused more on the right/wrongness of actions/decisions? Especially, as Lara pointed out, with the overarching trend there appears to be with children focused more on the future, YA with boundaries, and adult with reflection 😀

    Poor “shall.” It feels like a dying modal, despite being more prevalent in the younger books. I wonder why it is, then, that it doesn’t get used nearly so much later in the age continuum.

    • I definitely think that children’s books see more right/wrong distinctions! I would also guess that you see more use of modals with permission in children’s. And yes, poor shall seems to be on its way out 😦

  3. Pingback: When Voice Doesn’t Match – Lara Willard

Leave a Reply to Kyra Nelson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s