“Oh, how sad! Look how they used to write in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then look at how feebleminded we sound today!”
I think most of us have experienced that kind of reaction after reading some elegant piece of writing from a romanticized age of literature. But are readers really getting dumber?
Whilst tis true that ofttimes, writers of bygone eras broadly partook of the pleasantries and convivial enjoyment which most assuredly accompanied the writing of highly ornamental prose, tis also true that such nostalgic musings about the implications of aforesaid leanings regarding the acumen and perspicacity of the common man as applied to language comprehension are more likely grounded in wistful and sentimental contemplations than in judicious and discriminative reflections on the true state of affairs which would have been observed by personages who enjoyed the prodigiously good fortune to have encountered and lived through such times.
In other words, people were not actually smarter back then. Most of the writing we still read from those eras was penned by intellectuals who valued the use of ornate language. That’s the primary reason for our misperception regarding reading comprehension levels of today versus those of bygone eras. In fact, the opposite is true. The average person’s reading comprehension is much higher today than it was back then.
Worldwide, only 12.05% of people were considered literate in the year 1800. In 2014, 85.3% of the world’s population was classified as literate.[i]
In the United States in 1870—which was when the U.S. Department of Education began tracking education statistics—less than 9,000 people in the U.S. had a college degree.[ii] The total population was 38.6 million and 35% of them were under the age of 17. That means less than .04% of the adult population had a college degree. Today, around 34% of those 25 or older have a college degree.[iii] In 1870, there were 7 million enrolled in primary schools while there were only 80,000 enrolled in secondary schools, implying that somewhere around 99% of the population was stopping their formal education after (what we would call) middle school. They only attended school for 132 days per year on average[iv], whereas today’s average is 180 days per year. Clearly, both developed world and underdeveloped world populations have gotten a lot more educated than they were back in the golden days of literature.
Okay, but of the people who could read back then, weren’t they smarter? Well, no. How you use words ultimately depends on your purpose. If people valued the ability to compose ornate writing today, they could certainly take the time to do it. It took me only a few minutes and a thesaurus to write my exaggerated sentence above. If I valued that sort of writing, I imagine I could produce it quickly and easily after a few months of practice. But what would be the point? Only a minute amount of people would be interested in reading such verbal gaudiness. (Yep, gaudiness is a word. I made sure.)
If writers enjoy ornate language and complex writing, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. There are other people with similar interests. We can find those people and enjoy ourselves together. But we shouldn’t expect the average person to latch onto our writing, dictionary in hand, growing in magniloquence as they passionately imbibe our musings.
It’s probably not going to happen.
Most people aren’t looking to build their vocabulary when they check out a blog or pick up a new book. So, it might be best to stick to writing in a way that most people will read, understand, and enjoy.
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