Here’s an article I wrote for ContentPeople, in April/May 2003, on Flesch readability.
Clarity is the commercial writer’s goal. With practice, it comes naturally. Finding the right level of readability is usually about gut feeling and consistency.
Increasingly, larger projects are looking to objective methods of measuring readability. The first – and most used – of these is the Flesch readability formula. Devised in the 1940s by American linguist Rudolf Flesch, it measures the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. Using Flesch’s chart and a ruler, a score is given. An easier way to check a Flesch score is with a software tool, such as Microsoft Word’s grammar checking.
In his book How to write plain English, Flesch admits that using such “a mechanical gadget for this doesn’t seem like an intelligent approach”. His belief, though, is that it reflects the process the brain uses to read. Essentially, Flesch says that it’s easier to read shorter sentences that contain shorter words. Not exactly a major breakthrough.
Perhaps the major flaw of readability formulae is their disregard for context. As John Wild, of the Plain English Campaign notes, “‘The cat sat on the mat’ has exactly the same readability index as ‘The mat sat cat the on’.” It has to be assumed, then, that anyone whose writing is measured using Flesch, or other formulae, already has a mastery of English.
Echoing John Wild’s reservations, Phil Scholfield, of the University of Essex, sees readability formulae as of limited usefulness. “While it is true that usually longer sentences and longer words are harder, that is not always so and several other things can make a text difficult, such as the complexity of its organisation and the difficulty of its thought/content.”
In an effort to achieve a higher Flesch readability score, it can be tempting to forget the actual, human readability of a piece and start slashing away at words. Almost slipping into the spirit of George Orwell’s Newspeak, Flesch suggests that writers should “take first aim at words with prefixes and suffixes, like establishment, available or required” and replace them with “a two-word combination like setting up, in stock or called for“. Rather doubleplusungood for subtlety in English, I’d say.
To be fair to Flesch, he admits that his formula is only useful as a guide. Certainly, for projects with large numbers of writers, the Flesch system can help to produce a uniformity of style. However, as web based translation services prove, language cannot be reduced to computerised rules.
Ha! Here’s a good joke: Joi Ito posts that someone has come up with two new punctuation marks, then tried to patent them!
The new marks are a question mark with a comma-like symbol replacing the usual dot. The other is – you guessed it – a similarly deformed exclamation mark.
Using two new punctuation marks, the question comma and the exclamation comma: and respectively, inquisitiveness and exclamation may be expressed within a written sentence structure, so that thoughts may be more easily and clearly conveyed to readers. The new punctuation marks are for use within a written sentence between words as a comma, but with more feeling or inquisitiveness. This affords an author greater choice of method of punctuating, e.g., to reflect spoken language more closely. Moreover, the new punctuation fits rather neatly into the scheme of things, simply filling a gap, with a little or no explanation needed.”
As an aside, I suggest that, before inventing new punctuation marks, people learn to use the punctuation we already have! What the hell is that colon doing in the first sentence?
It’s not that I don’t love the evolution of language. However, I believe this sort of thing has more to do with vanity than filling a gap so far unnoticed by the rest of the English speaking world. Everyone wants to be remembered for something; pre-ordering a gravestone with “He gave the world two new punctuation marks” would probably give some people an ego boost.
Every day, I begin sentences that stumble, then crash into a horrible mess of ideas. My solution is to step back, reconsider what I want to communicate and then divide it up into clause-sized chunks. Lazier writers would love two marks that offer them permission to litter their writing with the constant shifting of spontaneous, conversational English. This is the written equivalent of uptalk; as perfectly exemplified by Alyson Hannigan‘s character in American Pie, “And this one time, and band camp…”.
I cannot think of any situation in which either of these two punctuation marks would help written communication. Please use this blog’s comments to prove me wrong.
Now, if the – I cringe to write the names – question comma and, ugh, exclamation comma are to be taken seriously, why patent them? The reasons why this would never generate any income are too numerous and obvious to bother listing here. So, it must be back to the old ego thing: why invent two new punctuation marks unless you can show the world it was you? All seems very primary school to me.
Also see interrobang