The red pen effect

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.

[Pencils from Wikimedia Commons; red and blue pills from The Matrix]

25 Responses to The red pen effect

  1. Stan,

    I enjoyed that article very much. I’m still trying to contact you directly on a matter not relating directly to any particular piece that has appeared on the blog. Would you mind sending me your e-mail address.


  2. Stan says:

    Thank you Jonathan. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll redirect you to where I already answered your request. My e-mail address is also available on the About page of this blog.

  3. Yvonne says:

    I was struck when seeing pages from the manuscript of Ulysses for the first time how many different ink colours Joyce used to makes changes and corrections. Not just red but also green, purple and blue. It makes the manuscript all the more fascinating to look at.

    I have suffered badly under the lash of the red pen in my time and have no problem believing that the wielder is more critical and aggressive when gripping such a weapon in their hot sweaty. Some red annotations I received in school and in college almost cut through the page. So yes, down with that sort of thing!

    For scripts I would use red to mark changes. It is the only time I use red.

  4. Liam says:

    I had a boss who used to refer to correcting a document with a red pen as “bleeding all over it.” (“Let me see your draft so I can bleed all over it.”) He was meticulous, and a perfectionist, but it did improve the final document.

    It’s been pointed out here in the States for several years (I have a 17 year old, so I’ve been paying attention). Younger grades and more sensitive teachers have been correcting in purple and green. It’s far from universal and I see plenty of red on their papers from time to time.

    I believe any color is OK as long as it’s sufficiently vibrant. I’ve had papers annotated in black and find it difficult to find things like changed punctuation, etc.

  5. Fran says:

    It’s a big issue in teaching. The current preference appears to be green.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    I took a while to try and find – and link to – a most interesting essay I read in The New Yorker about Raymond Carver to no avail.

    His long time editor would just slash and burn his short stories – it depicted the editing in all its technicolour gory detail – resulting in the stories losing the author’s intent completely.

    At a creative workshop I attended this essay was reviewed in detail and to say we were astonished is to understate our reactions.

    His stories have since been republished, many, many years later sans the editing and to my mind are far more interesting.

    I tend to over-edit my own work when writing for publications. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

    But I agree on your colour scheme, I use green and blue and sometimes an orange. Red=rebuke in my book.


  7. Stan says:

    Yvonne: For a work with so many voices and interconnections, I’m not surprised Joyce used an advanced colour scheme to keep track. A woman for whom I once edited adopted a similar approach, with black, blue, red, green, orange and purple fonts denoting text at different stages of writing and editing. Memories from school seem to be among the most vivid that people have — all the more reason for teachers to be kind to kids’ mistakes (to paraphrase Kate Bush).

    Liam: That’s a funny line your boss used! And very apt; I guess he understood how close to the bone correction can be. I didn’t know about the trend away from red pens in U.S. schools — that’s interesting. And I agree: any colour so long as it’s not black! Or rather, as long as it stands out sufficiently.

    Fran: In a way I’m glad to hear that this is an issue in teaching, but it hardly deserves to be a big one. Harsh corrections have the potential to upset or even traumatise regardless of the colour.

    WWW: I haven’t read the essay you mention, though I heard about the conflict it refers to. (There’s a legal study of it here.) It’s interesting that you use a variety of colours but have excluded red from your editing palette. It accords with my own hunch, and with a growing body of scientific evidence!

  8. feelingfiction says:

    Pencil is impossible to see and red stands out the most. My vision didates whether I prefer red comments.

  9. Stan says:

    feelingfiction: Yes, pencil’s tendency to fade makes it unsuitable for this kind of work.

  10. EmilyAM says:

    A teacher of mine in primary school (over twenty years ago) made a point of correcting our copybooks in green pen.

    My own preference would be red for my own work and blue for other people’s work. I hate it when I have to proof something and I only have a black pen to hand.

  11. Stan says:

    Emily: Green is generally lovely, but I have this idea that it fades easily. The quality of green ink has probably improved since I last used it, though. As for having only black to hand: maybe you need one of those fancy multi-colour pens…

  12. Mercifully I don’t have to edit or correct in my line of work. I can see why a red pen would make a makrer or deitor more critical. I prefer purple ink myself

  13. Teal is what I use. I like its unassertive suggestion of a text in flux.

  14. Claudia says:

    In college, I truly hated the red on my English Essays. The teacher (a sarcastic nun) would hand me my copy and say, “Encore un Arbre de Noël, Mademoiselle Prévost!” Every second word needed a correction. She made me feel I would never make it. Don’t you wish sometimes you could go back to your past, with what you have learned since, just to show the people, who had no faith in you, that you were not that hopeless? Ah! well…Today she would probably say that I neglect my French, and would use her red pen sur mes compositions françaises!

    I don’t mind your blue marks, Stan, because you always explain why. Merci!

  15. Stan says:

    Jams: I’ve never used purple in an editing context, but I can imagine it working quite well.

    PFW: Teal, if you don’t mind! I’m impressed by both your choice and the reason behind it.

    Claudia: A sarcastic nun with a red pen? It sounds funny, but I’m sure it wasn’t. Her ‘teaching’ style sounds so discouraging, as though nothing would ever satisfy her. Never mind what she would think now — qu’importe le stylo rouge de la religieuse!

  16. absurdoldbird says:

    As an artist with an emotional response to specific colours, I was interested to read this post. I did a correspondence course years ago in which the tutor marked my assignments in red ink. I asked her to use a different colour as I absolutely detest red ink, unfortunately, I didn’t specify an alternative and so she used green, which is another colour that I find unpleasant in ink! I didn’t do well on that course, and gave up after a few assignments. I don’t know if I can completely blame the ink color, but it certainly didn’t help.

    Myself, if I need to mark something by hand that has to stand out, I usually go bright fluorescent orange which doesn’t trigger the same dire emotional response as red, in fact I find it quite a happy colour. In text, if I’m typing, I always use square brackets to show something that needs further attention and try to avoid a different colour altogether.

    I used to produce and edit a small poetry magazine and often had to edit submitted work. I think I just used whatever was to hand, but it was never red or green.

    All that said, from time to time I do red paintings, but they do have a searing effect on the senses if not balanced in some way.

  17. Stan says:

    Thanks for sharing your reactions, absurdoldbird. It’s curious that red is so often the default colour for corrections and supervisors’ marks, even though many people seem to particularly dislike it. I suppose that if another colour was used enough to generate negative associations the way red has been, it too would become more unattractive.

    Despite its similarity to red, orange is, as you suggest, considerably less intense. Fluorescent colours have their place, and are especially useful for certain kinds of marks, but they’re probably too garish for most forms of editing!

  18. absurdoldbird says:

    Mm, except I don’t use marker pens but those narrow guage gel pens that are meant for crafts! They ink line is no wider than a normal ballpoint. It gets the attention but doesn’t yell out “OY!” at one!

    I wonder when red ink was invented? Maybe it was one of the first colours after black? Or maybe the original editors used blood…

  19. Stan says:

    Ah yes, I see what you mean. Strong colours can be most effective, but in small doses (e.g. in thin lines) they need not dominate a display. Ink is a few thousand years old, I think, but I don’t know when red varieties were developed. Blood would have played a part in prehistoric paint, so I imagine it was also used on early paper as well as rocks…

  20. Tim says:

    My dad told me that marking corrections in red pen isn’t a good approach, especially with sensitive students. Then, when I got my CELTA, we were also told by our instructors that marking in red pen should be done sparingly and minimally.

    Having come to Japan, I have on occasion had to mark students’ work for teachers. I’m not supposed to, but it has eased the burden for them at times. Japan is a culture that doesn’t change easily. It is a cash society and they retain ceremonies and habits of yore.

    It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, to find that teachers will always mark in red pen. I suggested that I do it with a pencil, or with blue pen, but was adamantly refused the option. How they mark finished work is by swirling a red spiral onto the entire page, or, in the case of a test or exam, by putting a small circle next to or through correct answers and ticking incorrect answers.

    There are no alternatives. Everyone has to use a red pen, and everyone must do things this way because it is how it has always been done.

    I’m holding my breath for the day that the music used at graduation ceremonies is updated from a tune out of the 1950s when graduation must have been first introduced to institutions. It blows my mind that as each generation grows up they simply accept the way things have always been done without considering how bromidic it was when they were students themselves.

  21. […] Calling all teachers—don’t correct in red! I’ll begin this posting by referring viewers to an outstanding blog, one recommended by a friend in Wales. Click here for Sentence First, An Irishman’s blog about the English language. If you have a question, ask Stan—if he can’t answer it, then there’s something wrong with your question. For Stan’s stance on the correct color to use for corrections, click here to read his posting of The Red Pen Effect. […]

  22. Stan says:

    Tim: That’s very interesting. It’s remarkable how the status quo can become like an immovable object, beyond reproach or the possibility of supersession. This inertia exists just about everywhere, but it’s more ingrained in some areas, cultures and individuals than in others. I’m a little cheered by the advice you received from your dad and your CELTA instructors.

  23. herself says:

    Interesting post and replies. I am a bit surprised that nobody remarked on the habit of bank tellers/managers/credit controllers to send bank statements typed in blue or black but changed to red ink when you were overdrawn! Does anyone remember that? My Dad who owned a business dreaded opening the correspondence from his local bank as he could see at a glance when he was in trouble. The red ink was an affront to his best efforts to remain solvent. I recall statements which were even handwritten and they still used blue/black when you were in credit and changed to the dreaded, in-your-face red when not. I can’t remember when that practice changed

  24. Stan says:

    Herself: That’s a good point. Even the language (“in the red”) uses the colour to convey an unpleasant state: debt. Looking at other red phrases, it’s no wonder the negative connotations have piled up. As well as debt, red can suggest anger (red mist), guilt (red-handed), warning (red light), danger (red alert), dismissal (red card in soccer), political threat (red menace), and so on. It has its good side too, but I suspect it’s outweighed by the bad.

  25. Satyajay Mandal says:

    I firmly declare that teachers must not check students’ copies with red pens at all

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