Gender in Writing Style


I’ve been going through a very fascinating book by Ben Blatt called Nabakov’s Favorite Word is MauveThis book quantifies commonly accepted writing norms and rules across well-known classics and best-sellers.

We have already talked about adverb usage and exclamation point frequency and these posts have generated much discussion.

This post will talk about words that are present with more frequency in writing based on the gender of the author. I think you’ll find this fascinating. I know I did.


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In his book, Nabakov’s Favorite Word is MauveBen Blatt examines the types of words and actual words used most frequently by authors of different genders. He starts out simply by examining Facebook posts.

He starts out by citing a University of Pennsylvania that analyzed millions of Facebook, chatroom, Twitter and blog posts to see what words were being used most by each gender. A table of the results is shown below:

Source Lopsided usage by males Lopsided usage by females
Facebook F*ck, League, Sh*t, F*cking, Shave Shopping, Excited, <3, Boyfriend, Cute
Chat room emoticons 😉 😀
Twitter assent or negation terms Yessir, Nah, Nobody, Ain’t Okay, Yes, Yess, Yesss, Yessss, Nooo, Noooo, Cannot
Blogs Linux, Microsoft, Gaming, Server, Software Hubby, Husband, Adorable, Skirt, Boyfriend

Another study from 2003 conducted by British computer scientists found that males use many more noun specifiers (a, this, these) while females use many more pronouns (I, yourself, their).

It might seem unlikely, but through this analysis, the scientists were able to create an algorithm that could predict an author’s gender with 80% accuracy just by looking at these characteristics.

Bratt extrapolated the methods used in these two studies and began examining classic fiction. He took 100 classic books, 50 by male and 50 by female authors and came up with the following results for frequency of words in descending order

Most Gender-Indicative Words in Classic Literature

Male Female
Chief Pillows
Rear Lace
Civil Curls
Bigger Dress
Absolutely China
Enemy Skirt
Fellows Curtains
King Cups
Public Sheets
Contact Shrugged

Blatt then takes these words and does the reverse of his process to see how accurate an examination of both Classic and Best-Selling novels would be in predicting gender of the author. the results are interesting as shown in the following two tables. The errors are noted with an *.

Most Masculine Classic Novels Most Feminine Classic Novels
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce Ellen Foster – Kaye Gibbons
Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White Rubyfruit Jungle – Rita Mae Brown
Orlando – Virginia Woolf* A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess*
Animal Farm – George Orwell Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
The Shipping News – Annie Proulx* The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson Bastard Out of Carolina – Dorothy Allison
Lord of the Flies – William Golding The Color Purple – Alice Walker
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand* Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather* Lady Chatterly’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence*
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway The Death of the Heart – Elizabeth Bowen
Most Masculine #1 Bestsellers Most Feminine #1 Bestsellers
Inferno – Dan Brown Kiss the Dead – Laurell K. Hamilton
The Fallen Angel – Daniel Silva Power Play – Danielle Steel
The English Girl – Daniel Silva Hit List – Laurell K. Hamilton
The Heist – Daniel Silva Until the end of Time – Danielle Steel
Act of War – Brad Thor Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Flash and Bones – Kathy Reichs* Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
The First Phone Call from Heaven – Mitch Albom Dead Ever After – Charlaine Harris
Kill Alex Cross – James Patterson New York to Dallas – J.D. Robb
Cross My Heart – James Patterson Frost Burned – Patricia Briggs
The Time Keeper – Mitch Albom Dead Reconing – Charlaine Harris

This was an interesting topic to look at. Depending on the level of discussion, I may spill it over into another post as Blatt has a lot more to share on this subject.

I look forward to your comments.

 

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16 thoughts on “Gender in Writing Style

    • Thanks, Lucy. It’s interesting when authors write for protagonists of a gender opposite their own. I’ve seen some famous authors fail miserably at this where you can tell it’s a male author trying to write for a female protagonist. You have to wonder how this carries over into their own lives and their ability to understand the opposite sex.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Don. I can’t help questioning the sampling used in his study… In my different groups of female friends online and offline, those are not the “words” and terms I hear. Also classic literature will naturally have sexist “gender indicative” words, because of the eras from which most of the books come.
    I try to always leave positive comments, everywhere I visit. So let me wish you a wonderful Wednesday. Hugs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I totally agree with you on the sampling. The study pulled from ‘millions’ of Facebook posts out of the billions of posts that are on the platform. It doesn’t say what countries or what time period was involved. It’s just kind of fun to see how accurate the predictions were. I think the interesting thing with the classic novels is how many authors didn’t fit into the formula such as Virginia Wolf and Ayn Rand. I just like sharing these things. Right or wrong they generate discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s fascinating. When I was in grad school, my boss gave me a book called Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was an interesting look at the ways the different genders think and then communicate. It dealt with body language in addition to words, and it was more about confrontations and explanations than general writing, but the concepts are transferrable to fiction.

    Great post, Don.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Don,
    This study is really interesting. Deborah Tannen has written (numerous) books and articles on the differences in the way men and women speak. She outlines some of these in her article ‘You Just Don’t Understand’ – though this mostly focuses on reasons for miscommunication between the sexes, it also explores the ways in which men and women speak differently (this is a fascinating topic generally – lots of theories and studies which I came across whilst teaching A Level English Language). I wonder if the gendered style of a writer’s work is down to the correlation between speaking and writing. If we are used to speaking in a particular way, according to gender, then perhaps that influences the way we think and therefore write.

    I wonder if genre and subject matter makes much difference to the results as well (I’d be interested to see what happens if you compare an action story by a woman and an action story by man).

    I love that Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando came out a male – particularly considering the central concept.

    Thanks for posting this – looking forward to reading more about it.
    PJ

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve read Deborah Tannen’s books, and they are an excellent study in communication. I thought this was an interesting study. The fact they choose to gather information from Facebook, however, leaves me scratching my head. Thanks for sharing and for what it’s worth, I believe the way we communicate and our gender translates into our writing. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

    Liked by 1 person

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