The Sociology of Yellow Highlighters

The free market responds to changes in demand. Thus, when we see a new array of widely used products offered for sale, and the old array disappears from public view, we can safely conclude that either a major sociological transformation has taken place or else what was commonly assumed to be a common practice in fact was not.

I became a user of yellow highlighters late in my career. For decades, I marked up my books and articles with a reliable old-fashioned pen. I mean the real thing: a fountain pen with a refillable ink converter in it. I bought bottles of ink. I still do. I still occasionally write on paper, and when I do, I use a fountain pen for anything important. There are millions of people today who have never seen a bottle of ink. You must special order it. Hooray for the Web!

Anyway, I finally switched to highlighters in the late 1980s. I like yellow because I can easily read the words highlighted. Darker highlight colors are more opaque.

Recently, I tried to buy a box of yellow highlighters. Every brand used fluorescent ink.

I searched Google for highlighter florescent yellow and got 92,400 hits. Then I searched for highlighter non-florescent yellow. I got 136 hits, and most of these were not products offered for sale.

The problem with florescent yellow marks is that they fade into near-invisibility under incandescent light, meaning a standard light bulb. However, the marks are brighter than non-florescent yellow in sunlight or florescent light, which is close to sunlight. So, in a business office lighted by florescent lights, florescent yellow is more visible than non-florescent yellow.

What does this tell us? If we assume that most reading rooms at home are lighted by incandescent bulbs — a safe assumption — it tells us that most people do not think carefully about what they read at home. If they highlight something at home, it is only for detailed thought and action at work, where they can see what they have highlighted.

A highlighter is for marking important information that we do not want to forget. It appears that this does not apply to what most people read at home.

The business office is not a good environment for thoughtful contemplation. The home study is. The preponderance of incandescent lighting next to an easy chair or even at the study’s desk tells us that people are not spending time at home reading with a yellow marker in hand, unlike how they read at the office.

The free market has responded to this sociological reality. It is now more difficult to buy a box of non-florescent yellow highlighters than it is to buy a bottle of ink. I have a mental image of a seedy looking man standing in an alley located close to a public library. “Pssst. Buddy. You interested in some non-florescent yellow highlighters? Take home one of them. It’s free. Try it out after the little woman goes to bed.”

I am making the switch to verbal note-taking: the Naturally Speaking voice-recognition program coupled with the free EverNote data base program. My hoard of aging non-florescent yellow highlighters may keep me going until the transition is complete. The old technology was great while it lasted, but time marches on, as Westbook van Voorhees reminded us weekly for three decades.

Rest assured, I am not about to give up my Waterman Phileas fountain pen. They will have to pry my Waterman out of my cold, dead hand. But I am concerned that Congress may eventually try to register ink purchases.

May 13, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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