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Harry Potter is a contemporary children's novel.

Harry Potter is a modern children's novel.

contemporary :

Belonging to or occurring in the present

modern:

Characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, ideas, or equipment:

When just plainly looking into dictionaries, both words seem convey the meaning all right. But when put to history perspective, both words mean something a lot earlier than the present. Contemporary history represents everything post-1945; Modern history post-medieval.

So which word is better when you just want to causally, yet accurately, describing the book rather than recent(novel)?

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You can use either one.

Harry Potter is a contemporary fairy tale nested within traditional English canon.
Source: Seroczynski, et al., 2011

My initial hypothesis is that Harry Potter is a modern retelling of Hamlet.
Source: Sirola, 2013


Personally, I would use contemporary, but I wouldn't call modern "wrong."

Many adjective-noun pairs have than one valid interpretation, but, in my mind:

  • A futuristic story takes place in the future
  • A contemporary story takes place in the present
  • A historical story takes place in the past

There are some exceptions, though. I'd call Star Wars a futuristic story, even though one of the first things we learned in the movie is that it happened "a long time ago." Because it uses technology that we associate with the future, however, I'd still characterize it as futuristic. (Characters in historical stories tend to use horses for conveyance, not hover cars.)

Also, it depends on what you are trying to say.

As your definitions hint at, when it comes to fiction, modern could relate more to the style of writing than the setting. So, a modern novel could be set in the past, present, or future, yet it may employ a more modern technique, be presented in a more modern style, or address a more modern issue. For example:

Boston Marriage is a modern play about a lesbian couple set in Victorian-era New England. Source: 2014 Theater review

Lastly, we must be careful about context.

Words that are interchangeable in everyday conversation may have stricter dividing lines in more formal settings. In other words, two neighbors discussing Harry Potter in the backyard may swap terms like modern and contemporary more loosely than, say, an English professor delivering an academic lecture. From eHow.com:

Modern and contemporary plays are categorized by the period during which they were written. Modern plays were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contemporary plays were written in recent years, from mid-20th century to the present.

It's fine for someone to make a distinction like that, but that doesn't mean all of language will then follow one person's taxonomy.


For those who are curious, Boston Marriage was written in 1999.

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  • Thanks for the answer, it's really detailed and thorough.But I am thinking if Harry Potter is contemporary, then what do you call older books like Farewell to Arms? let's say I want to introduce my friend to these two books from the two very different era, what words should I use to describe the time period they are from?(And let's somehow assume he haven't heard of these two hugely famous books).
    – user49119
    Aug 24, 2014 at 13:07
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    @user49119 What about "1920s" and "1990s"? The basic rule is Grice's Maxim of Quantity: "Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).Do not make your contribution more informative than is required." Aug 24, 2014 at 14:55
  • I agree with @StoneyB - I'm not sure there's a single adjective that will always mean "in the 1920s" - except maybe "1920s".
    – J.R.
    Aug 24, 2014 at 23:37

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