Monday, May 21, 2012

Level of speech

A new study argues that the speeches of members of Congress are now one grade lower than they were seven years ago:

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)

We need to be careful about over-reacting to this. Comparing to the original documents of the country is not fair, because they were written by highly educated people for highly educated people. A better comparison would be the speeches by members of Congress once less educated people started getting elected.

Level of speech is an interesting thing. A few years ago I was a fellow at the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University, which was a great experience. A major goal of that program is to get scholars doing research on issues of interest to North Carolina (in my case, immigration) to translate their research into op-eds that could inform and contribute to public debate. In one workshop with a Communications professor, he told us to keep the op-eds at a high school level (incidentally, did you know Microsoft Word can tell you what grade level your document is? I did not know that before). The reason? Newspapers have broad audiences, and editors will more likely accept op-eds if they are accessible. I published several that reflected my research perfectly while using language more people could relate to.

In other words, we want to be educated but that does not mean we use fancy language just for the sake of it. The fact that MLK's famous speech was at a 9.4 level is an important reminder of that. It was pitched broadly while retaining eloquence.

It makes me think, in fact, that many academic articles and books might be greatly improved by making them more accessible. That doesn't mean dumbing them down. Rather, it means making them more clear.

h/t The Monkey Cage


Alon 3:05 AM  

Then again, traditional reading level formulas focus exclusively on surface features and are quite poor predictors of the actual cognitive difficulty of the text; they cannot capture things like cohesion or argumentation structure. There is much better work being done these days (e.g., Coh-Metrix and the like.)

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