Popular Science, “The State of The Guardian’s SOTU Infographic Is…Dumber”

February 13, 2013

Emily Elert, “The State of The Guardian’s SOTU Infographic Is…Dumber” (Popular Science, Feb. 13, 2013)

In reality, the Flesch-Kincaid readability test measures two things: the length of the words in a piece of prose, and the number of words per sentence. As columnist and linguist Ben Zimmer explains, the test was developed in the 1970s, not as a metric for the intelligence, complexity, or lingual eloquence contained in a text, but as a “rough and ready analytical tool” for assessing the appropriateness of texts for different grade levels. If a book or article or written speech scores a 5, a fifth-grader should be able to get through it without getting lost in a sea of clauses and semicolons. […]

Okay, so word length has decreased slightly over time, and sentence length has decreased dramatically. That trend may denote a stylistic shift in political rhetoric, says Zimmer, but it tells you very little about the quality or intellectual prowess of each sentence’s content. Instead, it probably reflects the fact that politicians have caught on to the idea that audiences don’t really want to walk away from a speech in awe of the orator’s masterful use of the semi-colon; they want to walk away knowing what the orator was talking about.

Read the rest here.

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