An American Editor

December 10, 2012

The Decline and Fall of the American Editor

In past articles, I have bemoaned the decline in language skills that I see in many younger editors and in authors. My bemoaning was revitalized by an article in the December 1, 2012 issue of The Economist (“Higher Education: Not What It Used to Be,” pp. 29-30), which said:

For example, a federal survey showed that the literacy of college-educated citizens declined between 1992 and 2003. Only a quarter were deemed proficient, defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and toi develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Almost a third of students these days do not take any courses that involve more than 40 pages of reading over an entire term. Moreover, students are spending measurably less time studying and more on recreation. “Workload management,” however, is studied with enthusiasm–students share online tips about “blow off” classes (those which can be avoided with no damage to grades) and which teachers are easiest going.

(Emphasis supplied.) Only 25% of college-educated U.S. citizens are literate! How depressing is that? The article went on to note that “[a] remarkable 43% of all grades at four-year universities are As, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960,” which means that students are being rewarded for being illiterate. Makes me wonder if their professors are literate.

Unfortunately, a confluence of many factors is resulting in the dumbing down of the editorial and authorial classes in America. The decline in newspaper readership is but one symptom of this decline. It is not enough to say that readers are getting the same information from sources other than newspapers, unless you can also say that the information that is contained in a multipage newspaper article is equally comprehensively conveyed by a 140-character twit.

Discussions that I used to have about current events with neighbors have hit a dividing line. Those of my generation still engage in detailed discussions regarding topics of local interest and are informed about those topics; those of the younger generation can only discuss, at most, the headline.

eBooks are both a blessing and a curse as regards promotion of literacy. That anyone who has access to a keyboard can suddenly become an author is a curse; that readers pick up and read a lot of the produced drivel is a curse; that these same readers and authors do not recognize the difference between, for example, your and you’re is a curse; that readers are more interested in being distracted from reading than from actually reading is a curse.

On the other hand, ebooks make material to read more accessible to more people at a lower cost, definitely a blessing. In addition, because ereaders offer such things as instant dictionary access and online access to websites like Wikipedia where more information is available about a topic, ebooks can be viewed as spreaders of knowledge, which is also a blessing.

Alas, for the blessings to truly be blessings, the reader has to be open to taking advantage of them. With the trend of using nondedicated ereaders to read ebooks, however, combined with the trend to read only a very few ebooks during the course of a year, it is difficult to get the blessings to outweigh the curses.

The more insidious trend that ebooks promote is the acceptance of incorrect language use. The more often a child sees “while your driving the car,” the more ingrained it will become that your is correct. The fewer authors who hire qualified professional editors to fix grammar errors, the more standard becomes the misuse of language and the more such misuse is learned and accepted.

Compounding the problem is the discouragement qualified professional editors receive from authors and publishers. There is no reward, only punishment, for being a qualified professional editor in today’s market. The punishment is on several levels. On the most basic level, it is the downbeating of pricing. Authors and publishers rarely accept the pricing that a professional editor would charge were the editor’s services valued. Rather, the mantra is lower pricing. And to force the market to lower pricing, authors and publishers too often search the Internet for best pricing, rather than best editing.

The consequence of this downbeating of pricing is that those of the younger generations with the requisite language skills to provide topnotch editorial services do not enter the profession, or do so in a very limited way. That means that the ranks of editors are being filled by those who lack proficiency in the very skills they seek to provide. When an author whose ebooks is riddled with homophonic errors tells me that the ebook has very few such errors because they paid to have the book edited, it tells me that both the author and the editor lack necessary and fundamental language skills and that neither can recognize that lack, so both accept substandard work as standard. If you are a young learner and are subject to reading hundreds of such substandard books, you soon begin to believe that they are correct and replicate the errors in your own writing.

If you do not think repeat exposure to erroneous language use will lead to that erroneous use becoming accepted as correct, look no further than the argument regarding the age of Earth (6,000 years of age vs. millions of years of age). Or consider how advertising works (repeat exposure to a message is designed to get a viewer to believe the message’s verity; this is most clear when looking at political advertising).

The illiteracy noted by The Economist above bodes ill for American editors becoming or remaining a valued profession. It is difficult to uphold high values when you cannot recognize high values. When America’s most educated class — its university graduates — are reading challenged and language challenged/deficient, how much expectation can there be for the proficiency of those not in that “educated” class? (And think about those of the “educated” class who become the teachers of our children. Considering where most teachers are in class standing at university, how likely is it that your child’s teacher will be one of the literate 25%?) Considering that professional editors today generally come from the university-educated class of workers, how likely is it that the literacy level demanded of the printed word a few decades ago will survive to future decades? When the income levels of qualified professional editors are in a state of perpetual decline and when authors increasingly avoid using qualified professional editors, preferring to self-edit or to have “beta” readers provide the editorial review, how likely is it that the high editorial standards of past decades will carry forward to future decades?

Will we soon be reading The Decline and Fall of the American Editor in twittese? What do you think? Are you concerned?



  1. As Frank Zappa said, “It’s not getting any smarter out there.”
    Am I concerned? In the short run, yes. The decline of literacy signals an even more serious withering of the capacity for reasoned, critical thinking. If we keep sliding at the current pace, we’ll outlive rational discourse and problem solving. Life in the nursing homes, tended by incompetents, will be hell.
    In the long run, however, I take solace in the realization that there is as yet no evidence that the human intellect is an evolutionary advantage or a beneficial use of star dust. (Consider: why are we the only species that has to pay to live here?) Natural selection will have its say and, with a little luck, enough other organisms will survive to carry on without us.


    Comment by Will Harmon — December 10, 2012 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

  2. Reminds me of the early days of spell checkers, and being boggled when I discovered it could be allowed to run automatically. It soon became apparent that certain producers of paperbacks thought computerized spell checking was the equivalent of proofreading, with results equally boggling or downright hilarious.

    Meanwhile, spelling is no more immune to the evolution of language than vocabulary, pronunciation, definition or syntax. We’ll get changes. Some homophones may get squeezed into a single spelling and so long as they remain clear in context it won’t matter so much. What will, of course, is clarity and comprehension. Without that, there’s no point in language in the first place.


    Comment by Kay Shapero — December 10, 2012 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  3. Nice, gloomy thoughts over my first cup of coffee! “The more insidious trend that ebooks promote is the acceptance of incorrect language use. The more often a child sees ‘while your driving the car,’ the more ingrained it will become that your is correct.”

    It’s funny how you mention “nondedicated” e-readers as part of the problem; I have an “old-fashioned” Nook that only lets me read books, magazines and PDFs, not surf the internet. I toyed with upgrading but suspected I, too, would get distracted and not read as much. It’s bad enough that I have a smart phone that distracts me (although I use that for reading, too). I have to remind myself that I was “raised” to be a reader–I learned to read at a very early age and my family always encouraged reading (as well as the value of study and doing well in school). Not everyone has that advantage, and kids today have many more distractions than I did growing up. It is a battle.

    I refuse to get too depressed about the state of things–I do realize, however, that I have to work to create my own niche while learning as many new skills as possible to offer to clients.


    Comment by Jan Arzooman — December 11, 2012 @ 6:32 am | Reply

  4. Let’s also remember that it has *always* fallen to editors to be the first and last line of defense against lazy, uninformed, and misguided usage. The tools change, but the task at hand remains the same.


    Comment by Will Harmon — December 11, 2012 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  5. “If you do not think repeat exposure to erroneous language use will lead to that erroneous use becoming accepted as correct, look no further than the argument regarding the age of Earth (6,000 years of age vs. millions of years of age).”

    Does this really have anything to do with acceptance of erroneous language use, or is this sentence just an irrelevant paean to scientism?


    Comment by Shmuel — December 13, 2012 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  6. “Does this really have anything to do with acceptance of erroneous language use, or is this sentence just an irrelevant paean to scientism?”

    The age-of-Earth snippet is an example not of language misuse but of inadequate fact-checking. The OP’s point, I suspect, is that lazy language leads to lazy thinking, which leads to the perpetuation of myth-based ignorance.

    Thankfully, most professional scientists don’t practice “scientism,” and those who do soon find their credibility questioned. Genuine scientists adhere to the scientific method, which encourages–indeed, ***requires***–skepticism, critical analysis, testing, and re-testing, even of itself. Which is why it works better than superstition. “For men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in their readiness to doubt” (H.L. Mencken).


    Comment by Will Harmon — December 13, 2012 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

  7. […] “The decline and fall of the American editor”. […]


    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: In which brevity is the heart of linkity — December 14, 2012 @ 3:04 am | Reply

  8. Another thing that seems to be declining is the ability to recognize logical fallacies, not to mention the ability to do fact-checking. The NAAL survey the Economist cites does not equate the top category on its literacy scales with “literacy” per se, meaning anything below that, as you appear to assume, is “illiterate” or “not literate.” In fact, the survey does show a slight but statistically significant decline in the top (of four) categories for both prose and document literacy, with a concomitant rise in the category just below, deemed “intermediate.” But the same survey also shows a decline in the bottom category–deemed “below basic,” and the only category that can be equated with illiteracy–for both document and quantitative literacy, with prose literacy unchanged.


    Comment by snego — December 14, 2012 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  9. […] editing in the not too distant future. Part of the blame belongs with our educational system (see The Decline and Fall of the American Editor), but part of the blame belongs with the publishers […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Will the Tide Turn for Us? « An American Editor — January 7, 2013 @ 4:06 am | Reply

  10. This sky has been falling for millennia, and vague “federal studies” are inevitably blasted by analysts. (Just take a look at the many, many examples of this at Language Log.) So much of what we read about on this topic is anecdotal and alarmist. My point isn’t that the current generation is much more literate than portrayed; it’s that older generations tend to inflate their own achievements and be alarmed by the relative incompetence of youth. And of course the further back in history you go, the more true this is, since mass literacy is relatively recent.


    Comment by Carol Saller — January 8, 2013 @ 11:45 am | Reply

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