URC

The Language of Book Titles

Grace Brody

University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (Columbia University Course)


Abstract

This study investigates the possible existence and influence of different linguistic patterns in the titles of books aimed for young adults and adults.  If these patterns are effective, they could help explain the popularity of some books over others. The existence of these patterns could also demonstrate expectations for what is more appealing to each age group.  However, in surveys given to ten adults and ten young adults, the patterns did not correlate to any title preferences among the age groups, suggesting that the titles serve some other purpose.

Introduction

We are all taught not to judge a book by its cover, but to a certain degree we always do: with people and with actual books. There is some indescribable attraction when one picks up the “right” book. It is not just the storyline; it is the overall presentation and most importantly the title. Perhaps these titles attract based on linguistic attributes. Specifically, are the titles of books aimed at audiences (particularly “young adults” versus “adults”) different in any linguistic ways? 

Other researchers have studied the importance of titles in various forms of expression. These studies include Bernhard (2007), who analyzed the names of newspapers all over the world and noted that “the rationale for putting titles on newspapers stems from a universal human impulse to name things, primarily to distinguish one from another but also to impart to them the qualities for which they are, or are wished to be, noted” (1).  Thus by differentiating between the book titles aimed for young adults and adults, this current study on the language of book titles examined whether the patterns found in the titles imparted particular qualities that made them appealing to one age group over another.

Both Franklin, Becklen, and Doyle  (1993) and Levinson (1985) analyzed the profound influence the title of an artistic piece has on the viewer. Franklin, Becklen, and Doyle found that the titles can influence the interpretation of a painting by a viewer; thus when two people were shown the same painting with different titles, they reached different interpretations.  Levinson (1985) found that the titles could be considered “essential properties” of the artwork as well as a part of its “aesthetic potential” (29). Visual art is different from books; but if the titles of the artworks can have such a strong effect on the viewers’ experience of the work, perhaps the titles of books can have a similar effect.

Jackson (1968) found that young adults do prefer certain titles to others. Unlike this current study, Jackson (1968) focused on the students’ interest in writing on these titles, while this study focuses on their interest in reading them.  Specifically, Jackson (1968) studied the preferences of ninety-two seventh graders in writing about a selection of one hundred titles offered to them. She discovered that some titles were preferred over others, and that when the titles evoked specific subjects males tended to prefer “adventure” topics while females preferred a “wider spectrum” of topics (395). Perhaps differences in preference can also be found among age groups.

Hypothesis

This study explored whether a distinct difference in language use existed between adult titles and young adult titles. The young adult titles were expected to be more interesting to attract a younger audience. To investigate this, the survey asked for reactions to and preferences between hypothetical titles from informants. These titles were later analyzed for grammatical structure by counting the categories listed in Table 1. The study analyzed whether the titles that followed the discovered patterns were more successful both among the informants and the bestsellers list.

Methodology

This study focuses on four questions:

1. What are the linguistic patterns in the titles of books aimed at different age groups?

2. Do the books that follow the pattern sell better than those that do not?

3. Does the average population of adults and young adults prefer the titles aimed at their age group?

4. What impression does the difference in titling have upon the readers?

Number Words

Number Adjectives

Number Nouns

Number Verbs

Number Participles

Punctuation

Full Sentence

Number Articles

Table 1. Categories Examined in Book Title Study

To analyze the book titles, the first ten of the fiction/literature new releases were selected from the Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites for each age group, forty books in total (see Appendix 1).  These titles were the first ten that appeared in each list to attempt to insure randomness. These titles were then analyzed on grammatical categories such as number of adjectives (see Table 1 and Appendix 2).

The categories picked were based on cursory patterns noticed among the titles. Each title was then recorded in each of the categories. Certain patterns, such as short phrases or high adjective count as a percentage of the number of words, were expected to be common among young adult books due to their more appealing nature as these patterns are either more descriptive to better illustrate the story line or shorter to better catch the reader’s eye. Based on the results, a survey was created that tested whether the intended audience favored the found patterns and what affect the differences in style had on the audience (see Appendix 3 and Table 2). In the survey (see Appendix 3 and Table 2), titles were created that would test these patterns. In the first example, examples were provided testing the use of articles in the titles. In this question, the first sentence follows the young adult pattern while the second follows the adult pattern. The second question tests the noun adjective pattern found in adult books (thus the first example follows the adult pattern while the second follows the young adult pattern). The third question tests the popularity of full sentence titles.  The first example is a full sentence while the second is not. The fourth question tests the length of titles. The first examples is six words long following the young adult pattern while the second example is only two words long following the adult pattern.

The Flower vs. Sky

The Tall Ones vs. The Evil

The Boy Touched the Sky vs. The Boy Flew

Chicago, New York, LA, Philadelphia and Me vs. My Summer

Table 2. Title Groupings used in Survey

The simulated titles described similar subjects to attempt to minimize gender or personal preferences. This survey was given to ten young adults between ages 14 and 18 and ten adults between 20 and 50. Finally, the structure of the top ten best sellers for each age group on the Barnes and Noble website and Amazon.com were compared to the found patterns.

Results

In the analysis of the book titles, the number of words, adjectives, nouns, verbs, participles, articles, and punctuation were counted, and it was determined whether the title was a full sentence or not.  The major differences noticed are shown in Table 3.  First, only one title out of all forty was a full sentence. Second, articles (such as “The Necromancer”) were used in the young adult titles more frequently than in the adult titles (60% in young adults, 35% in adults).  Third, the two word titles of adult books were more frequently simple noun adjective constructions (such as “Foreign Influence”) as opposed to other forms found in young adult titles (15% of adult titles as opposed to 0% of young adult titles). 

Fourth, the young adult titles were longer on average than the adult titles (65% of young adult titles were three words or longer while only 45% of adult titles were three words or longer). This analysis determined that the patterns in Table 3 were the most common. 

Pattern in Titles

% Young Adult

% Adult

Full Sentence

2.5%

0%

Use of Articles

60%

35%

Noun-Adjective Construction

0%

15%

Three words or Longer

65%

45%

Table 3. Title Pattern Quantitative Results

The overall behavior of the different age groups varied. Teens overwhelmingly tended to favor the same title (an average of 90% of teens picked the same title). Adults were more divided (50% of the time dividing sixty/forty between the two titles).  For three of the four pairs, the teens and adults favored the same title.  In the first question, the teens and the adults favored the title with the adult pattern. In the second question, both groups favored the title aimed at their age group. In the third question, both age groups favored the title that followed neither age group pattern. In the final question, both groups favored the title aimed at the young adult age group. 

In their descriptions of the different titles, the responses were varied and often contradictory. Often what appeared to be a more “interesting” title to one person was “boring” to another, emphasizing the significance of individual preferences.  The concept of specificity was brought up frequently, with both age groups favoring the title they found “less specific” or more “broad.”  In the third question, the respondents addressed the idea of “prettiness” in a title, with one of the informants claiming that a title could not be pretty with a verb in its title.  In both questions three and four, the idea of length was addressed.  Typically, the informants complained about the length but frequently chose the longer title anyway. (See Appendix 4 for completed survey). 

The bestsellers did not match the patterns discovered using the quantitative results of the tile patterns (see Appendices 5 and 6). First, no full sentences were found. Second, the bestsellers of both age groups used an equivalent number of articles. Third, noun adjective constructions were not as common in the adult titles as they had been in the original list. Finally, seventy percent of adult titles were three words or longer, while only fifty percent of young adult titles were three words or longer.

Conclusion

The patterns observed in this study (see Table 3) may have various origins. The lack of full sentences in the titles may have originated in the fact that full sentences are awkward and not very inviting. The prevalence of articles in young adult titles may harken back to children’s’ books that frequently use articles (e.g., The Three Little Pigs); perhaps this is an attempt on the authors’ parts to appeal to a younger audience. The noun-adjective constructions found in adult titles are simply constructed with little information, which may be unappealing to young adults who want more information. This may be the same reason for the length of young adult titles. Both of these patterns allow the young adult titles to be more specific, which the authors may feel better appeals to teens.

Although distinct patterns were observed within the titles of adult and young adult books, these patterns were not necessarily observed as being as appealing. Neither the adults and young adults surveyed nor the general population, which determines the best sellers list, showed particular preference for the book titles that followed their particular age group’s pattern observed in the original list.  Also, when the informants were asked to describe the titles, neither pattern appeared to be overwhelmingly considered more interesting.  Although in the survey, members of both sexes were included, this difference was not analyzed in regards to the actual data. It is possible that the different sexes preferred different titles, as Jackson (1968) suggested. It is possible that in the analysis of the titles, patterns were seen that were arbitrary and thus demonstrated no intention of attracting a particular age group. Also, most of the respondents wanted to know more about the books than just their titles in order to make their decisions, suggesting that those marketing books to adults and teens should consider that more information is important.  Thus the discrepancy between the hypothesis and results may be explained.

Most of the other studies researched the effects of book titles on informants. The mediums they did study were more affected by their titles.  Thus, while Franklin, Becklen and Doyle (1993) and Levinson (1985) found that the titles of art have a great effect upon their viewers, apparently this does not translate to the language of book titles, perhaps because there is a lot more explanatory information typically available for books than art.

This research discerned something unexpected. Instead of finding patterns in titles aimed at different age groups, this study suggests that titles as a whole tend not to have as a great an effect on book choice as originally hypothesized.  If the appeal of a title does not attract readership, what is the purpose of a title?  Is it simply the “human impulse to name things” (1) as Bernhard (2007) suggested? Perhaps it is to give a short synopsis of the book. To test any of these hypotheses, further research would have to be conducted. For now, it can simply be said that titles seem not to attract readership.

References

Bernhard, J. (2007). Porcupine, picayune and post: How newspapers got their names. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com///.action?docID=10237211

Bumstead, K. W. (1981, Summer). The grammar of movie titles. American Speech, 56(2), 158- 159. Retrieved from JSTOR database.

Franklin, M. B., Becklen, R. C., & Doyle, C. L. (1993). The influence of titles on how paintings are seen. Leonardo, 26(2), 103- 108. Retrieved from JSTOR database.

Jackson, L. M. (1968, May/). Preference scaling of titles in English composition. The Journal of Educational Research, 61, 395- 397.

Larson, C. (1937, February). American newspaper titles. American Speech, 12(1), 10- 19. Retrieved from JSTOR database.

Levinson, J. (1985, Fall). Titles. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 44(1), 29-39. Retrieved from JSTOR database.

Appendix 1

Barnes and Noble New Releases (Summer 2010)

Adult:

Private
Broken
Foreign Influence
Ice Cold
In the name of honor
Home Team
The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Crashers
Eat, pray, love
Lit  

Teen:

The Necromancer
The hunger games
Only the good spy young (Gallagher Girls Series #4)
Burned
The Carrie diaries
The maze runner
Rules of attraction
The reckoning (darkest powers series #3)
Shadow Souls (Vampire Diaries)
Spirit Diaries (Vampire Academy Series #5)  

Amazon New Releases (Summer 2010)

 

Adult:

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
The Overton Window
Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)
One Day
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
Sizzling Sixteen
The Search
The Rembrandt Affair
Sliding Into Home
Foreign Influence: A Thriller  

Teen:

The short second life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella
Catching Fire (The second book of the hunger games)
Breaking Dawn
Only the Good Spy Young
Linger
Pretty Little Liars #8: Wanted
Fate
Flutter
I shall wear midnight

Torment

Appendix 2: Book Title Data

Attribute
B ook

Adult/
Teen

#
Words

#
Adjectives

#
Nouns

#
Verbs

#
Participles

Punctuation
(comma, ¶)

Full
sentence

#
Articles

1

A

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

2

A

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

3

A

2

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

4

A

2

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

5

A

5

0

2

0

0

0

0

1

6

A

2

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

7

A

7

1

4

0

0

0

0

1

8

A

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

9

A

3

0

0

3

0

2

0

0

10

A

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

11

T

2

0

1

0

0

0

0

1

12

T

3

1

1

0

0

0

0

1

13

T

8

2

4

1

0

2

0

1

14

T

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

15

T

3

0

2

0

0

0

0

1

16

T

3

1

1

0

0

0

0

1

17

T

3

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

18

T

6

2

2

0

0

2

0

1

19

T

6

0

6

0

0

0

0

0

20

T

4

1

3

0

0

0

0

0

21

A

9

0

5

0

0

3

0

1

22

A

3

1

1

0

0

0

0

1

23

A

8

2

3

0

0

2

0

2

24

A

2

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

25

A

7

1

5

0

0

1

0

1

26

A

2

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

27

A

2

0

1

0

0

0

0

1

28

A

3

0

2

0

0

0

0

1

29

A

3

0

1

0

1

0

0

0

30

A

4

1

2

0

0

0

0

1

31

T

10

2

5

0

0

1

0

2

32

T

9

2

3

0

11

2

0

2

33

T

2

0

1

0

1

0

0

0

34

T

5

1

1

1

0

0

0

1

35

T

1

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

36

T

5

2

2

0

1

1

0

0

37

T

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

38

T

2

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

39

T

4

0

2

2

0

0

1

0

40

T

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

 

Appendix 3

Survey:

  1. Describe the different impressions the two titles give
  2. Pick which title is more appealing to you

1. “The Flower” vs. “Sky”

A.

B.

2. “The Tall Ones” vs. “The Evil”

A.

B.

3. “The boy touched the sky” vs. “The boy flew”

A.

B.

4. “Chicago, New York, L. A, Philadelphia and Me” vs. “My summer”

A.

B.

 

Appendix 4

 

Survey:

  1. Describe the different impressions the two titles give
  2. Pick which title is more appealing to you

1.   “The Flower” vs. “Sky”

  1. “Sky” more vague, less specific, open ended, more interesting, vague allows the mind to wander
    “The flower” more serious, specific, interesting/ mysterious

  2. Sky: (teen) 10 (adult) 6
    Flower: (teen)    (adult) 4

2.   “The Tall Ones” vs. “The Evil”

  1. “Tall ones” too specific, more broad, incomprehensible, very strange, not  specific
    “Evil” more interesting, want to know more, not specific, broader, more serious, sounds better

  2. Tall ones:  (teen) 2  (adult) 6
    Evil: (teen) 8  (adult) 4

3.   “The boy touched the sky” vs. “The boy flew”

  1. “The boy touched…” prettier, too long, more interesting, not pretty enough, no titles with verb, hopeful
    “The boy flew” not pretty enough, no title with verb

  2. The boy touched: (teen) 10 (adult) 7
    The boy flew: (teen) (adult) 3

4.   “Chicago, New York, L. A, Philadelphia and Me” vs. “My summer”

  1. “Chicago…” more specific more action, more fun, more appealing, more interesting, too long, long winded for a title, very specific
    “My summer” more interesting, more boring, not exciting

  2. Chicago: (teen) 6 (adult) 8
    My summer: (teen) 4 (adult) 2

 

 

Appendix 5
Bestsellers (Summer 2010)

 

Adult

The Girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
The girl with the dragon tattoo
The girl who played with fire
Delivering Happiness: A path to profits, passion, and purpose
Sliding into home
The help
Sh*t my dad says
One day
Mockingjay
The overton window  

Teen

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella
Breaking Dawn
The Hunger Games
Twilight
Catching Fire

Percy Jackson and the Olympians
New Moon
Pretty Little Liars   
Dead as a Doornail: A Sookie Stackhouse Novel
Lin


Appendix 6
Bestsellers (Summer 2010) Data

Attribute
B ook

Adult/
Teen

#
Words

#
Adjectives

#
Nouns

#
Verbs

#
Participles

Punctuation
(comma, ¶)

Full
sentence

#
Articles

1

A

7

0

3

1

0

0

0

2

2

A

6

0

3

0

0

0

0

2

3

A

6

0

2

1

0

0

0

1

4

A

9

0

5

0

1

3

0

1

5

A

3

0

1

0

1

1

0

0

6

A

4

0

2

1

0

0

0

0

7

A

2

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

8

A

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

9

A

2

0

1

3

0

0

0

1

10

A

3

1

1

0

0

0

0

1

11

T

10

2

5

0

0

1

0

2

12

T

2

0

1

0

1

0

0

0

13

T

3

1

1

1

0

0

0

1

14

T

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

15

T

2

0

1

0

1

0

0

0

16

T

5

0

3

0

0

0

0

1

17

T

2

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

18

T

3

2

1

0

0

0

0

0

19

T

8

1

4

0

0

1

0

2

20

T

1

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

 

 


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