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The question says it all. What is the standard, compassionate/politically-correct term for those who lack a literacy education?

I'm looking for something a little higher in register and more accurate than "reading-challenged" or similar.

  • My first feel is that since the very concept it refers to is negative, a good euphemism would have to be invented for the concept (see "differently abled" or "intellectually challenged"), and with the low prevalence of literacy, this is unlikely to occur. – March Ho Dec 24 '14 at 8:08
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    Illiterate is politically correct already. – Blessed Geek Dec 24 '14 at 10:32
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    I'm with @BlessedGeek on this: illiterate is already clinical, descriptive, and judgment-free. Any other term one could come up with would have to somehow have to provide a reason for their illiteracy, which smacks of excusing them, which implies a norm that one ought to be literate, which is antithetical to the objectives of politically correct speech. With all that said: choose whatever term you please, just make you only use it in written form. :) – Dan Bron Dec 25 '14 at 0:28
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    Take a look at Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, or the chapter on Japanese in Sampson's Writing Systems. The basic problem is that Japanese writing was designed by bored courtiers with art, obfuscation, and irony in mind, and way too much time on their hands. Not only does it require learning one alphabet and two syllabaries, plus the usual Arabic numerals, but also uses variants of Chinese characters, most of which have been borrowed more than once, at different stages of language development, and thus have several different pronunciations and meanings. – John Lawler Dec 25 '14 at 19:10
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    I suppose if you told someone they were illiterate, they could be offended, but if it's written down they wouldn't know anyway. (Boyfriend's joke which made me lolled!) – Mari-Lou A Dec 30 '14 at 10:25
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My impression from a quick Google Books search is that the term nonreaders has often been used in recent years as a neutral way to identify persons who cannot read.

From Ronald Farrar, Mass Communication: An Introduction to the Field (1995) [snippet not visible in box]:

Catch phrases often used by nonreaders include: "I forgot my glasses." "I can't read that print." "I'll read it when I get home." "You read it for me." "I can't understand those big words." In questioning persons

From Sam Weintraub, Annual Summary of Investigations Relating to Reading, July 1, 1995 to June 30, 1996 (1997) [combined snippets]:

Using the results of the word identification test, the subjects were divided into 2 groups: 76 nonreaders, who could not identify any words, and 20 novice readers, who could identify 1 or more words. Anova and ancova procedures were applied to explore differences between nonreaders and novice readers on the various indices of phonological sensitivity.

From Judy Richardson & Raymond Fagan, Reading to Learn in the Content Areas, volume 1 (2003):

What can the content-area teacher do with the student who can barely read or who is a nonreader? The teacher can (1) pretend such a student is really not that bad a reader and do nothing, (2) get help from a reading specialist, or (3) assign extra work to help a student in this situation. Ideally, content area teachers do both (2) and (3).

Unfortunately for people who like to use language unambiguously, the term nonreaders is also sometimes used to identify people who simply don't choose to read a particular periodical or form of content (as in "nonreaders of newspapers") or to people who dislike reading despite knowing how. So illiterate is arguably a clearer term than nonreader for indicating the inability to read. But as discussed below, illiterate isn't an altogether unambiguous word either.

The point of euphemistic speech is to avoid using words that some hearers might find vulgar, offensive, or otherwise unpleasant—and it can hardly be denied that, in a society that prizes literacy, illiterate has negative connotations. Indeed, for hundreds of years, writers have often used it as part of extended insults, which is how pejorative senses of objectively neutral words gain their teeth. For example, from Samuel Low, The Politician Outwitted, a Comedy (1789):

HUMPHREY. A boar! why you're worser than he there—he only took father's corn for pigs, but do you take me for a boar, eigh? Do I look like a hog, as the saying is?

FRANKTON. Begone, you illiterate lubber!—My dear Charles, I have a thousand things to say to you, and this is an unfit place for conversation.

This instance is especially interesting because it illustrates the ambiguity of the word illiterate when used in a nonclinical sense. In fact, the Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) identifies several definitions of illiterate:

illiterate adj (15c) 1 : having little or no education; esp : unable to read or write {an illiterate population} 2 a : showing or marked by a lack of familiarity with language and literature {an illiterate magazine} b : violating approved patterns of speaking or writing 3 : showing or marked by a lack of acquaintance of a particular field of knowledge {musically illiterate}

Frankton's criticism of Humphrey in The Politician Outwitted might, therefore, be that he is generally uneducated, that he can't read or write (or both), that he doesn't show any taste for literature, or that he violates approved patterns of speaking.

From "Back Talk" in The Adjustor (September 1914):

That settles this phase of the financial situation pretty well, I should say, but out here on the coast we are principally interested in being informed why ... is the price of eggs being boosted to the neighborhood of 50 cents per dozen, and restaurant roast beef being sliced so thin that it is impossible to stick a fork into it? Answer me that, you illiterate, mouthing apology for a hiccoughing Washoe canary, and then go back to your manger and eat some more hay.

From Keith Peterson, The Trapdoor (1989) [snippet]:

Then the editor got the "message" signal on his screen and he pressed a button and the words, "[From Wells] You suck, you illiterate scum!" appeared right before him. Or something very much like.

Somehow, "You nonreader!" seems fangless in comparison to "You illiterate!" But if nonreader becomes sufficiently associated in the popular imagination with the underlying notion of illiteracy, it is likely to acquire pejorative connotations itself, and its usefulness as a euphemism will come to an end. At any rate, that seems to be what happened with retarded as a euphemism for "having unusually low mental capacity."

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Illiterate is the right term. The important thing is to use it in a neutral way and not write as if illiteracy deminishes a person's value or innate intelligence.

"Low literacy" is also a really good term because literacy is a continuum ranging from very very basic to very proficient. Referring to literacy as having levels is therefore more accurate than saying everyone is either literature or illiterate. Especially since people's levels of literacy can change throughout life.

For example, a woman who can read a few sentences, but not a bus schedule or a tax form. She isn't entirely illiterate, but she's also not literate enough to function in a highly literate society (e.g. North America). So saying that she has a basic level of literacy acknowledges the abilities she does have.

This is the sort of terminology used by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).

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You might find that "functionally illiterate" (wikipedia) is a better fit to what you mean. It refers to having the skills to use written language beyond the most basic level (another answer had the example of a bus timetable, IMO the tax form example is usually a level higher still). The addition of a specific and technical modifier also removes the ambiguity you allude to where "illiterate" can be read as an insult rather than a factual description. This could also be done as a matter of context of course.

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I would probably go with unlettered, an old-fashioned but still readily-understandable English word that literally means illiterate, but will be taken as quite polite, perhaps even quaint. Google Ngrams claims the word is still being used but slowly fading out.

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  • Are the more recent appearances referring to illiteracy or to the absence of letters? – Makenna Dec 30 '14 at 19:58
  • Scanning through at least some of the recent corpus, they seem about equally split three ways: illiterate, unschooled, and lacking lettering. There are definitely still recent uses of it to mean illiterate, e.g. books.google.com/… – Mark Thompson Dec 31 '14 at 5:55
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Due to the abundant misusage of the term 'illiterate' (as a deriding word), I think it is hard to use it without sounding condescending/insulting. How about using "uneducated" or "unschooled" instead? However, the exact meaning of these terms, too, can be vague. Hence, I would say the best way to address this group is by using an entire phrase, instead of a single term, to indicate what you exactly mean.

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    Welcome to English Language & Usage @Kashyap. We're looking for answers with more detail. Your post would be improved if it included a reference and an explanation of why it answers the question. – andy256 Dec 27 '14 at 11:28
  • Unschooled unfortunately currently has connotations to the unschooling movement. – Makenna Dec 30 '14 at 19:37
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I prefer to use the term "non-literate", as it doesn't seem to have the same negative connotation as "illiterate" but at the same time feels judgement free.

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