Red Ink, Green Ink

Exam marking being much on my mind, as discussed in the last post, I was thinking about the way we annotate the scripts as we mark. The practice I am familiar with (although I have no idea how standard this is, even across Cambridge) is to use red ink for first marking and green for second.  This approach has the advantage it removes all ambiguity about who has written what. Since one of the crucial roles of the second marker is to check that the first is capable of adding together the scrawled marks and entered them correctly both on the cover sheet and – even more importantly – in the Excel spreadsheet that represents the ‘markbook’, it is necessary that the marks from first and second markers can be distinguished. Hence the need for colour coding (apologies to all who are colour blind, for whom this colour scheme is clearly less than optimal, although I have never heard this raised as an objection. No doubt purple and orange would work as well. The use of any colours other than those a student might use is, no doubt, the relevant criterion).

But when it comes to commenting on the writing of PhD students, away from the exam scene, what colour(s) are appropriate?  I typically use whatever pen comes to hand as I scribble on draft papers or theses. I am not yet entirely comfortable with the paperless office, and on a train I find pens definitely easier to wield than commenting on the document on screen (although the students may find my writing hard to decipher if the journey was too bumpy). In my office red may be the pen of choice, but on trains I rarely find a red pen to hand. However, I have had students who object to red. Too stark, too in your face I’ve been told, please use any other colour, say green as softer, less abrasive. I am willing to oblige when this is explicitly requested, albeit I find it surprising. Does colour of ink really affect how students view my attempts to help them conform to some ideal of common scientific practice as well as linguistic clarity?

Writing a first paper draft, a progress report or a thesis draft can be a daunting matter, because so many students have rarely had a previous opportunity to try out their writing skills in extended prose at any point in their education – more’s the shame. Not so long ago I wrote about the need for a far higher proportion of the population to have decent quantitative skills, but it is equally true that scientists need to hone their skills in written (and oral) communication. This is not simply a case of flashy animations in Powerpoint or its cousins – they probably do get taught this, possibly ad nauseam.  No, I mean the ability not only to string a sentence together, but to understand how to frame an argument so that there is a logical flow, possibly over many pages. The need to understand (as one of my own ex-PhD students, who was by then a lecturer, expressed it when frustrated about their own students’ prose) that papers need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We are not talking about writing stream of consciousness texts like Virginia Woolf, or chronological accounts of everything that went wrong with multiple experiments. No, we are talking about conveying complex ideas in an appropriate manner so that someone not involved with the research can make head or tail of it. It is a skill that isn’t taught and perhaps ought to be. (I should stress these comments all refer to UK-educated students, rather than those for whom English is a second language for whom the issues may be very different.)

I have heard it argued that alongside A levels, we should be seeking to inculcate basic mathematics skills into all our schoolchildren using (for those not pursuing an A level in maths itself) something akin to a Use of Mathematics exam, similar to the ideas I discussed in that earlier post. I was of the generation that went through a Use of English exam myself, again intended for those not studying that subject at A level. I was also subjected to training in the art of précis at O level, a skill I suspect is not taught anywhere in our schools currently. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, reading an extended piece of text and reducing it to 200 words – or any other number as prescribed – is probably something that has stood me in good stead every time I’ve had to write a literature survey or review. Even at primary school I was drilled in punctuation and parsing the parts of speech. Much of this I have probably forgotten, yet I suspect the basic structures lurk at the back of my brain, reinforced by five years of Latin. But for many students now progressing up the scientific ladder, such opportunities may never have offered themselves. Their courses may have required little more than multiple choice answers, or perhaps a sentence or two of explanation, at school. At university, how many tutors have got the red (or green) pen out to correct spelling or grammar in a write-up of an experiment or survey of some piece of the literature? We expect a lot of our students without actually necessarily helping them on their way.

Despite concerns about our language use more generally, the Queen’s English Society has just thrown in the towel, reckoning that people no longer see the point of good, clear English in this age of texts and tweets (anyhow it transpired nobody wanted to join or run their committee). As the Guardian reported, in recent times this society has

also highlighted deficiencies in the use of English by university undergraduates – more than 80% were unable to spell and use the word “effect” correctly, while 43% were unable to spell the word “miniature”.

I would agree – I frequently find myself getting my pen out to correct a student’s spelling of effect/affect. Another particular confusion that irritates me is the misuse of dependent/dependant. It is extraordinary to me how many parameters turn out apparently to be ‘financially or otherwise supported’ by temperature or concentration – not what is intended. However, I find my willingness to wield a red pen as a result of poor grammar (or spelling), or just bad, confusing style, can sometimes be too rampant. When reading published papers, reports or even novels I find myself metaphorically reaching for the pen too – bad style is not just the preserve of the unwary science student.

So, let us as scientists not be prepared to accept verbose, wandering prose, poor punctuation or a lack of clarity in what we write. We should each work on our own style whilst also doing all we can to encourage students to recognize the importance of clear expression, correct spelling and thesuccinct presentation of a logical train of thought. Otherwise we are not going to do anything to further the wider public’s appreciation of what we do and why we love it, even when opportunities present themselves. Right, now where is my red pen?

I realise by complaining about other people’s writing, I am at risk of being corrected myself for an apostrophe gone astray or the infelicities of my own language. Please don’t bother to comment on this!

This entry was posted in Communicating Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Red Ink, Green Ink

  1. Tony Ryan says:

    Having been brutalised by my PhD supervisors red pen I have been averse to using one myself. I use purple & green on theses, purple for corrections that must be made, green to suggest alternative arguements in discussion.

  2. Tony Ryan says:

    I did try to correct the typo “arguments”!

  3. I’m afraid I am an unrepentant red pen man, even on typed stuff in Theses, mainly because even when you photocopy it it clearly looks different to the black type.

    (BTW, as far as I remember my own PhD supervisor went in for sparse annotations in blue, so perhaps that explains why I don’t have Tony’s aversion to red).

    Re second marking, I do try to use a colour other than red for that, although what it is depends on what is to hand. Obviously if the first marker used green or purple, then it’s back to my trusty red ballpoints.

    Of course, as we are made to do more and more marking of any kind of extended coursework on the computer using things like Grademark, the need for the extensive stock of coloured biros will presumably decrease.

  4. Steve Hawkins says:

    I’m not an academic involved in marking papers, but I suspect it is more than just a spelling problem with effect/affect, though as for dependent/dependant Google ‘define’ seems to say they are both the same these days – though I note the spell checker has underlined dependant.

    My standard piece of writing equipment for some years has been three fine Bics taped together – black, red and blue, and this saves scrabbling around for the right colour. (Checker has underlined colour too: grrrr.) I prefer to read my own books and papers with a propelling pencil in hand, but there is still a temptation to correct things that I have been lent! Marking and annotating books as you go along is a very good way of remembering and refinding the bits you want to refer to and quote later, and without such marks I would often find I had no recollection of actually having read them at all!

    There is a problem generally, as paper is such rubbish these days – especially in magazines – such that a pencil rips right through or will not mark the shiny surface, but even the finest biro leaves blobs and soaks right through the page. Try to get round this with a Rotring type pen, and the paper fillers just block it up. A very old fashioned dip type mapping pen and proper inks does the job if the paper is not too absorbent, and dip pens are what I use for writing cards and signing the odd letter (We just don’t write enough to keep a fountain pen flowing these days, so the dip pen has really come back into it’s own.)

    Sad to read that essay construction and precis are no longer taught to students, but I suppose they still must at least be able to grasp and remember facts or you would have had nothing to occupy you over the Bank Holiday:-)

    Interesting post as always.

  5. Ellie says:

    I too shy away from using red pen, if possible, although if it’s all I have to hand then I don’t worry about it overly. I’m not sure I believe it makes a significant difference to how a student feels, but receiving your first draft covered in corrections and rewrites can be a very disheartening experience (something I think we tend to forget as we get further in time from our own first time), so I try to do anything I can to make it less painful.

    Far more important, I think, is to let the student know that a draft covered in corrections is both completely normal and an encouraging sign: an essay with just a few comments like “expand this” is probably so poor the reader couldn’t find anything worth correcting, while a draft covered in red pen means we’re getting somewhere at last.

  6. Peter lumsden says:

    I have moved from written comments on written assignments to using an audio recorder which goes to the student as an MP3 file. I find that I can convey a lot more meaning in this way, suspect that WE understand the meaning of what we have written, not sure the recipient always does.
    Totally agree with you Athene on the subject of being able to construct a logical argument or to summarise a piece into its constituent ideas. Lacking I feel in everyday conversation. Think we should get students to do this orally as well as written.

  7. Frank says:

    I have read elsewhere (eg this post from Stan Carey) that a red pen is seen as too aggressive. Red is the colour of anger and danger, it’s true, but I was surprised to learn this.

  8. Manuela says:

    I agree completely that students should receive more training and support on how to write clearly and engagingly, but I’m rather disappointed by this post. For a start, it reads a bit like a Daily Mail rant about the good old days. Every single generation always complains about the education of the younger generations, usually with examples from how much better it was when they went to school. If every generation had been right, and the decline had indeed been going on for centuries, we should have completely illiterate youngsters by now. The post also confuses good writing with spelling mistakes, which are two very different problems, the second one being a very common one even among highly skilled writers.

    As a linguist, I also have a problem with the fact that you think that the closure of the Queen’s English Society is anything other than great news. Aside from their xenophobia and dubious links with the extreme right, they were a prescriptivist organisation with a completely unscientific approach to language, so I wouldn’t take any of their statements seriously. And in any case, Geoff Pullum from Language Log has shown that they wouldn’t recognise good prose if it hit them in the face (

    • First time I’ve ever been accused of sounding like the Daily Mail! I wasn’t complaining about the students so much as our teaching and assessments system on this particular front, and since I referred to the Use of English test that I was exposed to, clearly there were thought to be similar problems all those years ago too. So, please don’t assume I’m being hard on current students compared with my generation because that doesn’t square with what I wrote. Nevertheless, because schooling doesn’t offer opportunities for things like precis or writing extended prose, and it would appear many teachers don’t correct spelling or the misuse of words like ‘effect’, students don’t get a chance to improve their writing. Hence I feel it is incumbent on those of us reading draft theses, papers etc to help them out. I’m not blaming them, merely saying we need to do these things. As for the closure of the Queen’s English Society, I wasn’t intending to convey any opinion as to whether this was good,bad or indifferent as I’d never heard of them until I spotted the news item last week and have no views on the subject. You’re reading far too much into what I wrote.

  9. I am of the opinion that any student who feels a red pen is too “aggressive” or “in your face” needs to just suck it up, and find something more worthwhile to worry about. On the other hand, I can be more than adequately critical of crappy student writing in any colour available, so it really doesn’t matter much to me.

    As a sidebar, I’ve never figured out how Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” feature assigns colours to different reviewers of the same document, and the colours appear to change from computer to computer, presumably depending on default settings from person to person, or something. Again, not really a worry as long as the reader is au fait enough to realize that hovering over a change reveals who made it (or more accurately, whose installation of Word was being used at the time). It does kind of irritate me when it colours me something ridiculous, like tan, or mauve, though.

  10. cromercrox says:

    The inability of people to string a sentence together comes directly from the failure of our education system. I am a writer and a professional editor, but was never taught English grammar – something I now see as a disability. All the grammar I ever learned came from studying Latin, and, later, French, and, especially, German, from old-fashioned teachers who knew the basics. Nobody learns grammar these days, still less Latin, and the trend is to allow people to express themselves in whatever barbarous way they please, and to criticise this is somehow regarded as dominating, colonial, imperialist or patriarchal.

    On the other hand, language is a protean, living thing – I’ve been studying Old English lately, and reading some Middle English – and getting quite an education in how and why our language has been changed and enriched by its various influences over the centuries.

    What is important therefore is not the language people use, but the likelihood that they will be able to make themselves understood. Innit.

    • I remember being very struck when I did Spanish evening classes for several years in the late 90s how little grammar even quite educated people understood. The course was quite grammatical and my fellow students, including a lawyer, a doctor and an engineer, seemed to find grammar a total puzzle.

      Like Henry, I never studied English grammar, so my knowledge of grammar derives from being taught Latin, French and German. I also think one gets grammar ‘by osmosis’ from reading. I learned to read young and by the time I was learning languages at secondary school I am pretty sure I must have read many hundreds of books, mostly not written for children. So you can get a sense of grammar, or at least of ‘correct writing’ from reading – at least as long as the books you read are written grammatically.

      • Similar story here. I studied Latin for a single year and French for many… the pluparfait (sp?) tense seemed very mysterious indeed until I figured out that I was using it in spoken (and written) English all the time without knowing what it was called.

        I don’t recall ever properly learning any English grammar since maybe about 10 years old. Gerunds, conjunctions, all that stuff… very little that I can recall. Certainly almost no grammar at all in high school.

  11. EarlyToBed says:

    Learning to be a good writer and teaching good writing to students are both difficult tasks. In my research group it’s complicated by the fact that I’m from the pencil-and-paper generation (Yes! Marks (any color) on a page!) and my students are from the save-a-tree generation and hate “wasting” paper. I find people highly variable in their ability to take editing onboard. Teaching and learning writing takes a lot of time and effort, and lots of face-to-face time really helps.

  12. BB says:

    I didn’t mind my PhD thesis draft being covered in red ink… problem was the word ‘explain’ that appeared over and over again…and left me a little unsure what the problem was with the existing explanation.

    Now on the other side of the transaction I find myself writing ‘explain’ all the time… may be 9 years late but I finally get exactly what you meant by ‘explain’.

Comments are closed.