I was browsing Facebook this morning, taking advantage of Brisbane’s Ekka show holiday, when I stumbled upon an article shared by a friend. It’s an infographic produced by The Guardian showing the linguistic standard of Presidential addresses over time. The article titled ‘The state of our union is … dumber‘, implies that a simplification of writing style used over time in US Presidential speeches demonstrates a dumbing down – of what exactly I’m not 100% sure.
Perhaps the Presidents themselves are less intelligent or educated? Or perhaps it is the American public? My suspicion however, is that the trend is more a deliberate strategy than an inevitable decline caused by stupidity. A strategy meant to spread messages as far an wide as possible.
The factors involved will be complex for sure. The people who were even allowed to vote in the first place have changed dramatically over time. Originally there was no universal right and it has slowly expanded over time to include slaves, the poor, women and other ‘minority’ groups. Now I don’t mean those groups are less intelligent, but almost by definition they would have (at least initially) struggled to achieve the same level of education as established voters. Coming to grips with a broader voter base would have forced politicians to speak in a more universal manner. It just doesn’t make sense for a politician who wants people to vote for them to speak in a way that goes over people’s heads.
I think this is probably the main reason for more straight-forward Presidential speeches. In fact there is a science that has grown around trying to measure this simplicity. It made me think, what is this measure? And how does my writing measure up?
Turns out that there are a number of ways to measure how easy something is to read. The one used in the Guardian infographic was the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. It is a measure developed in 1975 for the United States Navy. Kind of weird right? Well at least I thought so at first, but the reason they wanted it was to test that their technical manuals could be understood by the people who actually run their expensive war ships. They didn’t want to write stuff that didn’t help, so they developed this test.
What the test does, is to provide a number showing the grade someone needs to get to at school so they can easily understand the writing. Have you ever wondered what people are talking about when they boast that their 5 year old is reading at a 10th grade level? Well this is it. It made me ask, “What level is my writing at?”.
Many word processing packages have this calculation built in, so firing up Word, I whacked a bunch of my short stories in and got a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for each. I also gave a rough personal estimate of what Grade level I thought might start to appreciate the content included of the story. That’s amazingly subjective I know, but I didn’t have time to get a bunch of school kids to read my stories and rate them – although that would be really cool (anyone?). You can see the result below.
The big question is, what does it all mean? Well I’m no expert (heck, I’ve only spent an hour at lunch reading Wikipedia), but here are a few thoughts.
- If the complexity level (Flesch-Kincaid) is lower than the intended audience level then that’s cool. It means that they can understand (unless they get bored – but I think the content itself needs to hold the attention).
- If the complexity level is higher than the intended audience level then that’s probably a bad thing.
- Some of the complexity levels seemed wrong. The story ‘Albert Fienman – Physics Cop’ was one that my wife didn’t understand because she didn’t have the background in quantum physics that’s needed. So the measure is about linguistic complexity but can be greatly affected by the actual subject domain too.
- Shorter stories tended to result in a higher grade (or higher than I expected) and this is probably because the statistics that go into the formula require a longer section of writing for accuracy. I also tend to think that shorter passages allow a reader to keep more complexity in their heads at once and still understand (although I have no idea if this is true or not)
- The way to get lower scores is to have shorter sentences and words with as few syllables as possible.
The next question that came to mind then was, “How does this compare to literature in general? I mean, I’m probably averaging a Grade 8 or less and most people in western society get past Grade 8. That means I’m cool right?” Well, here’s how a selection of my short stories stack up to other literature. (Mine are marked with an asterisk on each side of the name if you can’t work it out).
- What this tells me is that on the whole, my writing is harder to understand than generally accepted novels. Depending on my goals this might be good or bad, but if I want a broader audience then I need to work on simplicity. This is something that my father and wife have both mentioned.
- It makes sense that ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ has a negative score because it’s mostly read to children before they get to school.
- It’s really interesting to note how J.K. Rowling seems to have grown her writing style with the growing age of her audience as observed in different scores for ‘The Philosopher’s Stone‘ and ‘The Order of the Phoenix‘.
- I’d bet that most people would find my writing more accessible than Hamlet, so the formulas for complexity don’t take into account changing language.
- I wonder if I’m bold enough to ever tackle Ulysses (and how does it compare to The Silmarillion)?
While the Fleish-Kincaid measure is widely used and built into word processors, not everyone agrees that it is the best. The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh recommended using an alternate measure called SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) – man I love that name. However, my summary is that this is a useful pointer of to how widely accessible writing is. It cannot be taken verbatim because there are many other factors that affect it (e.g. relies on English language characteristics), but I probably should start to take more notice.
Out of interest, the grade score for this blog post is: 9.1 (not really what I was going for). 🙂