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ILLITERACY The inability to read or write, or the actual or perceived state of being uneducated or insufficiently educated. Social judgement is so powerfully built into the term ILLITERATE that scholars now generally use more neutral terms, such as non-literate (for societies and individuals for whom literacy is not a relevant issue) and pre-literate (for societies and conditions before LITERACY emerged or was encountered and adopted). Formerly, the term illiterate was used to describe someone without book learning or a liberal EDUCATION (especially in classical LATIN and GREEK), even though such a person could read in a vernacular language or handle accounts and correspondence. However, the word also carried the connotation of ‘unpolished’, ‘ignorant’, or ‘inferior’, as in ‘the disadvantage of an illiterate education’ ( Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 2, 1781, p. 75).


As schooling moved away from the classical languages, the term came to mean inability to sign one's name (generally on a marriage or a census document) or to read a simple passage. The term illiterate has been widely used pejoratively for usage which, though literate, has not measured up to the standards or expectations of the person commenting. Semi-literate is similarly employed: ‘an illiterate style’, ‘a semi-literate letter’. Because of the prestige of LITERACY and its influence on patterns of speech, some observers have attacked ‘illiterate speech’, and on occasion writers of guides to ‘GOOD’ ENGLISH have employed such phrases to persuade readers away from certain usages: ‘The first principle of illiterate speech—emphasis by repetition—is evident not only in grammatical patterns but also in PHRASEOLOGY; the basement-level speaker frequently iterates an idea and then immediately reiterates the very same idea in slightly different words. He is not quite sure you will understand him until he has said a thing at least twice’ ( Norman Lewis, Better English, 1956).


In recent years, the term has been used to describe the condition of people unable to cope with printed materials relevant to their needs (functional illiteracy) and people unacquainted with the canon and conventions of an educated populace (cultural illiteracy). Precise descriptions and accurate estimates of illiteracy of any kind in English-speaking countries are difficult to obtain.

Changing levels

In the 1950s, the inability to read or write was not in itself detrimental to achievement, but in an increasingly technological society illiteracy usually limits employment and advancement. David Crystal has pointed out that, in the developed countries, it is becoming more rather than less difficult for people to achieve an acceptable standard of literacy:
A democratic society and a free press presuppose high general literacy levels. There are now more diverse and complex kinds of matter to read, and people are obliged to read more if they want to get on. People who had achieved a basic literacy are thus in real danger of being classed as illiterate, as they fail to cope with the modern everyday demands of such areas as the media, business, bureaucracy, and the law. As a result of literate society continually ‘raising the ante’, therefore, the illiteracy figures rise, and the gap between the more and the less developed countries becomes ever wider (‘Literacy 2000’, English Today, Oct. 1986

The inability to read and write not only prevents people from functioning fully within their communities, but also exerts an influence on national priorities and the use of human and material resources.

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il·lit·er·ate / i(l)ˈlitərit/ • adj. unable to read or write: his parents were illiterate. ∎  ignorant in a particular subject or activity: the extent to which voters are politically illiterate. ∎  uncultured or poorly educated: the ignorant, illiterate town council. ∎  (esp. of a piece of writing) showing a lack of education, esp. an inability to read or write well. • n. a person who is unable to read or write. PHRASES: functionally illiterate lacking the literacy necessary for coping with most jobs and many everyday situations.DERIVATIVES: il·lit·er·a·cy / -əsē/ n. il·lit·er·ate·ly adv. il·lit·er·ate·ness n.

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illiterate XVI. — L.; see IL-2, LITERATE.

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illiteracy Inability to read and write. The eradication of illiteracy is one aim of public and compulsory education around the world, and yet the problem remains huge. It is estimated that about one billion adults in the world (about one in five of the world's population) are unable to read.

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