Saturday, October 27, 2012

On the many layers of communication in Fifty Shades of Grey

Dear Loyal Readers (or Reader, as the case may be),

Please accept my utmost apology for my slipshod review of Fifty Shades of Grey. If you haven’t read it, swing by now and take a peek. Click here. I’ll wait.

OK, back? Great.

As you’ve seen, in this early review, I mocked Ms James outright for her gross overuse of certain phrases: “cocked his head” (24 times), “Holy ___” (153 times), etc. While I stand by these statistics and the accompanying bar chart, I realized this morning over a cup of subpar coffee that I was grossly amiss in alerting you, Dear Reader(s), of the real horror that lies await ‘twixt the pages of Fifty Shades. 

I’m so sorry. Let’s delve deeper.

1. Nonverbal communication:  Referring to Figure 1 below (did I mention I minored in mathematics?), we see that the Fifty Shades crew seems to have an entire secret language made up of frowns, smirks, shrugs, scowls, groans, glares, and gasps. With a blanch and a whisper here and there to mix things up. 

Statistically, this equates to about 7 nonverbal messages for every 5 pages throughout the almost 400-page book, or on average, about 1.4 transmissions per page. 

Figure 1: Nonverbal methods of communication in Fifty Shades

Looking at the pie chart in Figure 2, which breaks down this grunt-speak (pause while I check if anyone actually grunts in Fifty Shades. Nope, nary a one), by percentage, we see that frowning is a clear leader, coming in 25% of the time, followed by snapping and groaning that together make up the next 30%. 

Figure 2: Nonverbal communication (by percentage) in Fifty Shades

2. Undertone communication: With so much groaning and smirking going on, it’s something of a wonder that the characters need to verbalize their thoughts at all. But in those rare instances where, for reasons unbeknownst characters can’t simply talk with a normal speaking voice, Ms James has created yet another layer of communication, this one made up of whispers, mumbles, and mutterings (see Figure 3 below). 

Figure 3: Methods of undertone communication in Fifty Shades

Similarly to the usage of nonverbal communication, this undertone dialogue is used about 7 times across every 5 pages. However, this language of whispers isn’t nearly as diverse as the bodily quirks and jerks (see Figure 4), with murmuring and whispering making up 2/3 of all occurrences. Breathing their words, which I’m not really sure how one doesn’t do this, is used 17% of the time, muttering is at 9%, and mumbling and grumbling together make up the bottom 3%.

Figure 4: Distribution (by percentage) of undertone comm in Fifty Shades

3. Scatological communication: We know from my last Fifty Shades review that Ana uses the expression “holy crap” 39 times throughout the narrative and “holy shit” 59 times. But if we account for the 90 additional secular scatological references (Figure 5), we see that mentions of feces occur so often (about once every other page), they’re practically another character!

Figure 5: Poopy-talk in Fifty Shades of Grey

Also interesting (I’ll restrain myself from charting this), is that while 61% of the time “shit” is elevated to Holy status, “crap” doesn’t seem to share the same prestige  - only 43% of the craps are deemed worthy of holiness. Who knew?

4. The big picture: Combining these keen observations with their accompanying statistics gives us a holistic view (backed by sound mathematical analysis) of the deep and intricate layers of communication in Fifty Shades. Here’s the bottom line:
On the average, nonverbal gestures, spoken undertones, and poop-talk appear three times on every page. Three times. Per page. For almost 400 pages. 


  1. I admire the time you put in research wise. The repetition of the above words are all words that the general public associates with physical activity (if you get my meaning). I'm not surprised that whisper, murmur or grumble appear so many times. An entertaining read for the most part but we did not pick up the book thinking she was the next Jane Austen.

    1. Fair enough! Scott Bury over at Written Words ( has a great piece on "What makes writing good" where he explores the relationship (or lack thereof) between so-called "good" writing and bestsellers.

      He talks about Fifty Shades, Twilight, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, noting:

      "Why did these books catch on? I guess if I could answer that, I could rule the publishing world. Obviously, they each hit something the reading public was looking for at the time they were published, and could not find anywhere else."

      Appreciate the comment and thanks for stopping by!

  2. please tell me you didn't count these by hand?

  3. I love this post SO much. Thank you for taking time to write it...however you counted all that up. :-)

  4. Thank you so much for the wonderful book! I finished it a few days ago and cannot get it out of my head. It is pure magic. It was everything I hoped it would be and much more. Thank you so much. You are a great writer... EL James.
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  6. I speed read three pages of '50 Shades' when it first came out and said to my boss (this was in a bookshop, and there were no customers in at that time), "Jeez*, this is terrible. I could write better myself!"

    Her response: "Yes, I know you could."

    Almost anyone with a half-decent command of the English language could write a better book than '50 Shades', but it still felt good in the context of a personal compliment! :)

    I am still mystified, beyond the titillation factor of course, as to how these books ever sold.

    * Please note that these were not the actual words I used at the time. The actual epithets don't bear repeating, especially in public like this. Yes, I was that disgusted by such appalling use of my mother tongue.