Are You Reading Me?

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Even neurolinguist G. Harry McLaughlin says of his own, widely used SMOG Readability Formula, “The theoretical basis is c—.”

George Weir, a philosopher and computer scientist at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, says Word’s readability test thinks grade-schoolers could handle the nonsense passage, “Acuity of eagles whistle truck kidney. Head for the treacle sump catch and but. What figgle faddle scratch dog and whistle?” Similarly, “Had lamb little a Mary” and “Mary had a little lamb” score identically.

“English as She is Spoke” is quite possibly the worst English language phrasebook ever produced. It was published in 1883 by a Portuguese [sic] man named Pedro Carolino who didn’t even know how to speak English. In order to compile it, Carolino used a French-English phrasebook and a Portuguese-French dictionary, which leads to a complete mess once the final translations are complete. The most interesting and frightening thing about it is that at one time, it was actually used as a school textbook, which makes finding the odd factual error or typo in the books being produced now seem like not such a big deal by comparison. —Some blogger

I want to be the Wall Street Journal‘s Numbers Guy when I grow up.

The Guy covers something today that I was just talking to a potential client about recently: Automated readability scoring and the “plain language” requirement for financial reporting.

Chairman Cox of the SEC is all for it.

I am all for it as well.
But what I keep trying to tell this client is that there is no substitute, in trying to assess readibility, for giving a text to your target readers and asking them if they can read it.

Run a focus group or two. Hire an editorial advisory board.

Microsoft Word uses a formula for estimating “readability” that dates back to the 1930s, the Guy notes.

Before computers, reading researchers attempted to quantify the ease of a work of writing using short excerpts and simple formulas. Despite computing advances, Word still follows the same model: It multiplies 0.39 by the average number of words per sentence, adds that to 11.8 times the average number of syllables per word, and subtracts 15.59 from the total. The result is the supposed minimum grade level of readers who can handle the text in question.

I will have to comment later. Running to the emergency dentist and the doctor. Tropical disease vectors have invaded my face and are wreaking havoc.

Similar formulas are used by textbook publishers and in dozens of states’ guidelines for insurance policies. From the beginning, these formulas were known to be problematic. A 1935 paper laid out more than 200 variables that affect readability. Most formulas incorporate just two, and not because they are the most important but because they are the easiest to measure. Then they’re mashed together, with weights set according to how the formulas work on standard texts.

“Everyone is waiting for this magic bullet that’s very easy,” says Karen Schriver, who runs an Oakmont, Pa., communication-design research company. But her experience with clients who have overly relied on these formulas have suggested that “maybe it’s just a stupid idea.”

Noting that the same passage’s score can differ by three grade levels or more, depending on the formula, readability consultant Mark Hochhauser says, “One of the things the field really needs is an updated formula.”

Even neurolinguist G. Harry McLaughlin says of his own, widely used SMOG Readability Formula, “The theoretical basis is c—.”

The formulas treat writing as a mere collection of words and spaces. Word meaning and sentence structure don’t figure. George Weir, a philosopher and computer scientist at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, says Word’s readability test thinks grade-schoolers could handle the nonsense passage, “Acuity of eagles whistle truck kidney. Head for the treacle sump catch and but. What figgle faddle scratch dog and whistle?” Similarly, “Had lamb little a Mary” and “Mary had a little lamb” score identically.

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