Thursday, June 19, 2008

Just Enough Syllables?

blog readability test

My blog is written at a high school level. I'm not sure if that's a compliment or something to be ashamed of. Given that most newspapers and magazines are written at that level or lower, I suppose I'm on target. I had always heard American newspapers were written at a 6th-grade reading level, and the other day I even read they had been lowered to 3rd grade in order to boost circulation, but according to a study done using an established formula, they are actually written between 9th and 12th grade. The LA Times and the Boston Globe are at the top of the chart, and the Washington Post and USA Today hover around the 10th grade.

There are various formulas for determining reading level, all involving an equation related to number of sentences, number of words, and number of syllables. None of these can judge how complicated the concept being written about might be, but they can at least gauge the general reading level. It seems that too many syllables can cause the untrained brain to grind to a halt.

I have an old illustrated copy of Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan that is written in words of one syllable. The editor/author had a series of these books as a way to teach illiterate adults. Let's see if her technique made reading any easier—here is the opening of the original text:

"As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do?"

And here is the one-syllable version:

"As I went through the wild waste of this world, I came to a place where there was a den, and I lay down in it to sleep. While I slept, I had a dream, and lo! I saw a man whose clothes were in rags, and he stood with his face from his own house, with a book in his hand, and a great load on his back. I saw him read from the leaves of a book, and as he read, he wept and shook with fear; and at length he broke out with a loud cry, and said, What shall I do to save my soul?"

Using a reading level calculator found here, the original paragraph proves to be written at the 6th grade reading level with 124 total syllables and two complex words (wilderness and lamentable). The revised paragraph is written at the 4th grade level with 108 syllables and no complex words at all. So, I guess breaking things down with fewer elements does make a difference. I have to confess I am more likely to read the version for illiterates than I am to read the original. I have never been able to make it very far when trying to read that book.

I have decided to gladly accept my high school rating and take it as neither a compliment nor a condemnation. It is what it is. As Mark Twain said, "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; and don't let the fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in." He wrote his essays at a 7th-grade level, so maybe he was on to something.

Incidentally, I just ran this post, minus the one-syllable Pilgrim's Progress, through the calculator, and it appears to be written at an 8th grade reading level with 813 syllables and 41 complex words.

Note: this post was reprinted in the MENSA Bulletin, November/December 2008 issue.


dive said...

You girly swot! Hee hee.
These things never rate the way that English is used, Robyn. You are highly literate and use language in expressive ways (especially in your story writing) that a comuter could never pick up on.
Twain was right about plain English, but I think you ought to give old Bunyan another go. He's like Shakespeare and Chaucer in that the rich cadences and poetic language are best read aloud. Give your tongue a treat and wrap it around his writing, Robyn.

Maria said...

I always roll my eyes at books that seem written to make me yawn with all the long words and Hemingway passages. I don't mind length, but I do mind verbosity.

I don't mind flowery or sentimental either, but I get weary reading anything that smacks of a pompous ass at work....

And I love the way that you write...

MmeBenaut said...

"smacks of a pompous ass at work": Maria. Now there's a phrase for you! I write mostly so that the children can read it easily and since I used to write political speeches, plain English (and plenty of repetition) was most favoured just so the poor sods could understand it. I think I might have been a pompous ass in the first couple of speeches but since my boss would sometimes run down to the chamber, meet me at the door and say "where's my speech" and then read it, having never set eyes on it beforehand, it was best to keep it simple. LOL
What an interesting topic Robyn.

MmeBenaut said...

Robyn - I just ran my blog and M.B's blog through the checker. His bilingual blog got "Genius" and mine got junior high school. Hee hee. Just as well my 8 year old granddaughter is a good reader!