When I began freelance editing, I decided to track changes in blue rather than the default red. I did this not just to avoid red’s overtones of aggressive nitpicking, but because blue seemed better suited to my temperament and editing style — even and light, respectively, unless stricter handling is required. Blue is a more neutral colour, and once I adopted it there was never a question of reverting, though what colours appear on a client’s computer is beyond my control.
There’s more at play here than aesthetics and personal preference. A recent study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that red pens prime us to be more critical. In “The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of grading standards” (PDF; abstract), authors Abraham Rutchick, Michael Slepian and Bennett Ferris summarise the research done on error perception and the colour red, before describing how they went about exploring red-pen “object priming”. “A small but growing body of research”, they report,
has shown that physical objects and environments can also influence cognition and behavior. For instance, the presence of guns can intensify aggression . . . and merely seeing a sports drink leads participants to perform with greater endurance. . . . in essence, any object that is closely associated with a concept could potentially influence behavior by making that concept more accessible.
This makes a lot of intuitive sense, but it’s important to test these ideas under controlled conditions in order to remove or reduce bias. “Because the color red is implicitly associated with avoidance and failure,” they note, “and red pens specifically have long been associated with errors, we propose that exposure to a red pen activates the concepts of errors, poor performance, and evaluative harshness.” They conducted three well-conceived experiments to examine these effects, and the results were telling:
people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than people using blue pens. . . . the very act of picking up a red pen can bias [teachers’] evaluations.
exposure to a red pen in the context of grading a paper can influence behavior, likely without the awareness of the person being influenced
The researchers cite various studies that provide evidence of an automatic cognitive link between red and failure. The connection is subtle, and context is everything; the effect of red might be very different if one is selling toothpaste or designing toys. One study suggests that “exposure to red facilitates effective performance of tasks that demand vigilance, attention, and a focus on detail”. No wonder it’s the default in editing. “The pen is mightier than the word”, of course, is far from the final word on the matter:
there are other possibilities. For example, red pens could influence levels of testosterone and aggression, or exposure to the color could activate an avoidance orientation, leading evaluators to be more cautious and critical.
As the authors acknowledge, carrying out similar studies — such as in cultures where the red-pen–error association doesn’t exist — would help resolve such uncertainties.
In the Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago, Jan Freeman wrote about the implications of this research with characteristic tolerance and good sense. “The zero-tolerance legions,” she observed,
never question the assumption that correcting pupils’ language mistakes will help them to write better. . . . It’s only natural to cherish a few language peeves. But if your red-pen reflex is overactive, you might ask yourself — is all that indignation doing you, or the world, any good?
She draws attention to a radio interview with Ben Zimmer, where a commenter threatens to switch off if he — I think it’s a he — hears Ben say basically or essentially even once. (See my previous post about basically-fulmination.) Jan’s excellent language blog, Throw Grammar from the Train, is subtitled “Notes from a recovering nitpicker”. You can probably tell why I like it so much.
My interest in peevology owes something to my former life as a part-time peever; my prescriptivist tendencies were based less on reason and evidence than presumption. Editing requires a measure of fussiness and pedantry, but only inasmuch as it serves the text and stems from sound, well-informed judgement.
Returning to pen colours, Mighty Red Pen (whose blog I also enjoy, despite our relative chromo-contrariety) wrote that when she edited her college paper, they had “a hierarchy of pen colours”, with the editor in chief using a privileged purple. Mark Allen revealed in a comment that he tends to “reach for the blue felt-tip over the red if they’re lying next to each other”, but feels that he may be doing the client a disservice if he doesn’t “grab the ruthless red”. MRP again:
At one job I had, I remember clearly a conversation with my new boss about the color pens I wanted. She suggested I consider ordering purple or green pens because she had heard that people tend to be intimidated by red pens.
I think the intimidation is particularly pointed if the corrections are numerous. It is, to a degree, independent of colour. This is why I sometimes reassure clients, if I’ve marked their text heavily, that many of the changes are minor and cosmetic — which they generally are — and that their writing isn’t as error-laden as it might initially appear to be. Such reassurance can be especially welcome if it’s the first time a writer has submitted material to an editor.
In a recent comment, I wrote that my own writing was informed by reading great and careful writers, and by following sensible guidance from authorities throughout history: this applies to editing too. The realm of English usage is not so much a chequerboard of right and wrong as a broad and complex terrain of shifting suitability. (There’s right and wrong too, of course.) I learned this gradually, and have gained experience enough to apply it; children and under-confident writers often haven’t, and unnecessary fault-finding from an unforgiving red pen can be a tough blow to their confidence.
The red pen is a powerful tool. Use it gently.