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The word

Redlined

Correction isn't the most important thing

By Jan Freeman
June 6, 2010

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For schoolchildren, the red pen has long been a fearsome weapon, blazoning the marks of failure on once pristine writing assignments. And in recent years, many teachers have turned down the volume, switching from red’s loud rebuke to gentler purple pens. Now research has illuminated another aspect of the red-pen effect: A study published last month reveals that teachers armed with red pens actually grade more severely than those using blue.

The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found that when participants marked up a paper supposedly written by an English learner, the red-pen wielders found more language mistakes to criticize. And when asked to grade a paper with no actual errors — just some doubtful style choices — the red-inksters awarded lower overall marks than the blue team.

The researchers — Abraham Rutchick of California State University, Northridge, Michael Slepian of Tufts University, and Bennett Ferris of Phillips Exeter Academy — don’t address whether marking more errors is good or bad (though earlier studies have linked the color red with failure). Their main point, Rutchick noted in an e-mail, is that “we’re constantly bombarded with stimuli that influence how we think and act, even (especially?) when we’re trying our hardest to be objective.”

But the urge to correct is a powerful thing, and when their results were published, even that mild conclusion drew hoots and catcalls from some online commenters. Tom Jacobs, who reported the study’s results at the website of the Californian magazine Miller-McCune, got a virtual earful about squishy liberals and their feel-good pedagogy. Teachers “SHOULD use the [pen] that causes them to find the most errors!” said one. “If you don’t mark the mistakes they made properly, they’ll never learn.” Another reader called the research “meaningless claptrap,” adding, “Big problem today is teachers not correcting things, whether in red, green, pink or purple ink.” (It goes without saying, I suppose, that there were mistakes in these comments, including two failed attempts at the plural possessive students’.)

The zero-tolerance legions are sure of their principles, if not their apostrophes. They never question the assumption that correcting pupils’ language mistakes will help them to write better. They’re scandalized by “invented spelling” — the radical idea that 6-year-olds might write more and (eventually) better if they weren’t smacked down for every inaccurate guess. They revel in outrage, like the writing teacher who declared that if he saw a comma fault — that is, a comma used where a semicolon or conjunction is traditionally required — he stopped reading the paper and gave it an F. (A “comma fault” is not always wrong, of course; “I came, I saw, I conquered” has two of them.)

And many a former student can tell of similar abuses. At Stan Carey’s language blog, Sentence First, an Irishwoman recently told how her elementary-school teacher would cut out the “wrong” words in homework and send pupils outside to bury the shameful scraps. The discussion continued at John McIntyre’s blog, You Don’t Say, where a reader recalled a teacher who “gave an automatic F for any piece of writing containing the word ‘thing.’ ”

Non-teachers, though powerless to enforce their peeves, also enjoy making a show of zero tolerance — like the commenter who planned to tune in a radio interview with Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The New York Times, but only provisionally: “If he says ‘basically’ or ‘essentially’ once, I turn it off.” Presumably, such people think they’re spreading the usage gospel; without them, we poor language sinners would continue to walk in darkness.

But even if the peevers were always right — which is not even close to true — the zero-tolerance approach betrays a misunderstanding of language learning (as well as a dim view of human nature). Toddlers don’t need to be rudely corrected whenever they brave a new construction; “the dog runned away” will become “ran away,” the “mouses” will turn into “mice,” and they’ll end up talking like their friends and families.

Why should writing be different? It’s harder than talking, but like any skill, it’s mastered by imitation and practice. Making prose, like making art or music, is a process of experimenting, revising, and remodeling; the errors that peevers love to pounce on are often the least important (and most fixable) of all the ways writing can go wrong.

If even good students are writing worse today — and it may be so — my (unscholarly) guess is that it’s lack of exposure to models, not lack of correction, that ails them. If you don’t read much — not only great books, but even everyday competent exposition — you won’t get the rhythm of long-form language into your bones. And without that, writing will be a struggle.

Sure, if you’re an editor, you want to flag every problem in a story that’s destined for print. But in most lines of work, peeving over other people’s language is mere preening: Nyah, nyah, your modifier is dangling! 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?

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this column gave the wrong location for the magazine Miller-McCune. It is published in California.