This post is an op-ed by Ben Bratt that was originally published in the Wall Street Journal in March, 2017. It draws on his book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing. Here’s a pdf of the original.
In this essay, he reports on some of his findings when he ran a computer analysis of word usage by major novelists, with special attention to gender differences. What words were more used by or about male vs. female characters, and how did these differences vary according to the gender of the author?
Men mutter but women mumble, and this is true for both male and female authors.
Men shout and women scream.
Male writers are at least 75% more likely to have their female characters interrupt than their male ones. Meanwhile, female authors didn’t discernibly differ in the frequency with which they have their characters of both genders interrupt.
Hated is among the top five verbs used most disproportionately to describe characters of the same gender as the author.
Men Shout, and Women Scream — At Least in Fiction
A statistical analysis shows a clear gender divide in the words
that novelists use to describe their characters
By Ben Blatt
March 16, 2017
Is it possible that men grin more often than women? Or that men shout but women scream? Everyone talks about he said, she said, but what about he muttered, she murmured?
I recently set out to find the words that, while gender-neutral in theory, are used in practice to describe one gender far more often than the other. If authors en masse write “he chuckles” but not “she chuckles,” I wanted to know. So I built a computer tool that could search for hidden patterns in a swath of 20th-century literary classics, as well as recent best sellers and literary award-winners— 100 books in each category, half of them written by men and half by women. (Think Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather for the classics, Stephen King and Jodi Picoult for the best sellers, and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen for the recent award-winners.)
Of course, this could seem a mechanistic approach to literature— but the patterns leapt out. Of all verbs, muttered had the most lopsided ratio of being used to describe the actions of male characters (“he muttered,” “he was muttering,” “he mutters” and so on) versus those of female ones (“she muttered” and the like). Meanwhile, murmured came out as the third most distinctive verb for female characters. In all three categories that I sampled, authors of both genders were prone to having their women murmur while their men mutter.
For female characters, the five most disproportionately used verbs are shivered, wept, murmured, screamed and married. For males, the top five are muttered, grinned, shouted, chuckled and killed. Much of that diction flies close to stereotype. A few words emerged, in all three categories of fiction, as sneakily gendered: In my chunk of English literature, male characters are about twice as likely to grin as female ones.
Our fictional universe also turns out to contain words that male authors use to describe female characters but which a woman would rarely use to describe herself or another woman. These words seem to highlight the biggest differences in how male and female authors view the world.
One key word here: interrupted. In each of our three categories (classics, popular fiction and literary fiction), male writers are at least 75% more likely to have their female characters interrupt than their male ones. Meanwhile, female authors didn’t discernibly differ in the frequency with which they have their characters of both genders interrupt.
Similarly, female authors use sob at about the same rate for their male and female characters—but male writers hardly ever use it to describe their own male characters. Male authors seem, consciously or not, to hold that if “real men don’t cry,” then “fictional men don’t sob.”
On the flip side, male authors describe their male and female characters as fearing at about the same rate—but females writers refrain from having their male characters fear things. Overall, they are about twice as likely to use the verb fear when talking about women rather than men.
Authors of both genders turn out to overwhelmingly use some words to describe characters of the opposite gender. (These may express some wish fulfillment.) In all three kinds of fiction that I sifted, male authors write “she kissed” more often than “he kissed.” Meanwhile, female authors write “he kissed” more often than “she kissed.” The same goes for the verbs love, exclaim, answer and smile. And hated is among the top five verbs used most disproportionately to describe characters of the same gender as the author.
Most writers place the emotional focus of a novel on a few main characters, who are usually from the same gender as their creator. I went back to check on Jane Austen’s six novels, and her profound focus on her female characters may be seen, in some small part, by the fact that each book uses “she” more often than “he.” More recently, Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy went the other way, focusing on male characters—and using “he” more than “she”—in each of their combined 24 published novels.
As the late popular crime novelist P.D. James has said, “All fiction is largely autobiographical, and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.” Looking at diction choices across gender may not help us to savor great literature, but it provides a surprising X-ray of our culture and ourselves. The use of statistics offers an unguarded glimpse at how we see and describe one another—and how others see and describe people like us.
—Mr. Blatt is the author of “Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing,” just published by Simon & Schuster.