By John Ballard
Several years ago at a continuing education course in Gerontology I first became aware of the Flesch-Kinkaid readability index. Simply stated, it is a tool used to measure the reading level of communication in terms of grade level. I used it to make sure a booklet I was writing would be easy for anyone to read and understand. At the time I was pleased to learn that the version of Microsoft Word to which I had access had the Flesch-Kinkaid tool which enabled me to score anything I wrote.
As the Republican primaries ground on I, along with many others I'm sure, was struck with what seemed to be a serious deterioration of language. Gone were the eloquent phrases with which political types once embellished their rhetoric, often to a sickening extent. In place of those lofty, often meaningless phrases and images, replaced by equally meaningless phrases and images, but in language that even a child might understand. No longer did the listener need to imagine the speaker surely couldn't really be that ignorant. Instead it became transparently cldear that the content really was a pile of vaccuous, steaming stupidity.
Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level, according to a new Sunlight Foundation analysis of the Congressional Record using Capitol Words.
Of course, what some might interpret as a dumbing down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications. And lawmakers of both parties still speak above the heads of the average American, who reads at between an 8th and 9th grade level.
Today�s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the
- U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level,
- the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and
- the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level.
- The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and
- Martin Luther King�s �I Have a Dream� speech is at a 9.4 grade level.
- Most major newspapers are written at between an 11th and 14th grade level. (You can find more comparisons here)
All these analyses use the Flesch-Kincaid test, which produces the 'reads at a n-th grade level' terminology that is likely familiar to many readers. At its core, Flesch-Kincaid equates higher grade levels with longer words and longer sentences. It is important to understand the limitations of this metric: it tells us nothing about the clarity or correctness of a passage of text. But although an admittedly crude tool, Flesch-Kincaid can nonetheless provide insights into how different legislators speak, and how Congressional speech has been changing.
Earlier this year, the University of Minnesota�s Smart Politics noted that Obama�s 2012 State of the Union address clocked in at an eighth-grade level for the third year in a row, and that Obama�s average grade level of 8.4 was well below the average of 10.7 for the previous 67 addresses. Fox News ran the story alongside the image of a child in a dunce cap, and right-wing blogs mocked the President�s intelligence.
Others pointed out that maybe speaking clearly was a good thing. After all, the SOTU speech was pretty much right at the level of the average American�s reading level. And writing gurus like George Orwell (�If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out�) and Strunk & White (�omit needless words�) famously advise simplicity.
But whether you see it as plain speak or you see it as a dumbing down, the data are clear: The overall complexity of speech in the Congressional Record has dropped almost a full grade level since 2005. And those on the political extremes, especially those on the far right, tend to be associated with the most simple speech patterns.