Thursday, May 24, 2012

Congress's Speech, or They Don't Write Like They Used To


Yesterday, via Digby, I came across Lee Drutman's Sunlight Foundation's article on the "changing complexity of Congressional speech." According to the article, which Drutman and Dan Drinkard based on statistical analysis, using the Flesch-Kincaid test (which uses a "reads at a n-th grade level" standard), of the Capitol Words site's word cull of speeches given by members of Congress, the linguistic grade level among Congressional speakers on the floor of both houses has has fallen by nearly a grade level compared to 7 years ago, falling from a "10.6 grade level" to a "11.5 in 2005."

Drutman writes: "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." Moreover, it turns out that the speech complexity of Republicans' official statements used to exceed that of Democrats, but that has flipped, and that members of Congress on the more moderate ends of both parties give more complex speeches than those on the less moderate ends, with conservative Republicans allegedly utilizing the lowest grade level.

Before you leap with delight at having your appraisal of Congress and of the GOP confirmed or start cursing and dismissing the study out of hand, I'd suggest one way of looking at this is that Congresspeople have begun to deliver speeches closer to that of average US voters who, according to Drutman, average out at an 8th grade reading level. Rather than talking down to constituents, they are talking, well, at them (though we all know the only people they're really talking to are the ones who bri...do various things for them involving sums of money).  In other words, I'm cutting them some slack.

I haven't watched C-SPAN in years, but I must admit that when I used to do so, in the late 1990s, I was often appalled at the simplistic level of the speeches Congresspeople on both sides gave, and it was a rare moment when the level of oratory (or wit, or knowledge, or anything) rose even to the standard that was expected of me and my coworkers, or that I had to achieve when speaking in high school. Former President Bill Clinton, however, like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then First Lady, was often very good at speaking off the cuff at a level and with a complexity that nevertheless did not exceed the grasp of listeners; in my opinion, both rarely failed to impress.

One of the things I've sometimes worried about with this blog and my writing in general is that my tendency is towards language that's too syntactically complex, ungainly, serpentine. I think in compound-complex terms, often opening a thought with a qualifying conjunction--it's just how my mind works.  I went through a period in which I strove to write simply and directly, and still try to do this when I have to deliver an introduction or talk, but since this blog is more of a sketchpad than anything else, I restrain myself less here. (Note that the preceding sentence stretches for five lines, and is compound in its syntax.) I can, however, write simply. Like now.

At any rate, I decided to try a different test to see at what level my writing averaged out, and used writingtester.com to assess the readability and grade level of my prose. I then scoured the web for snippets of work I could easily drop into writing tester's box. Most copyrighted work is difficult to copy and drop, but I also wanted to see how different prose texts over the last hundred or so years ranked. Our first two presidents, an Enlightenment philosopher, and Henry James land on the more difficult to grasp side; our most recent presidents, Toni Morrison, and Abe Lincoln write such that most people can understand them. I turn out to be rather close to Henry James. I'll take that as I shall.

One note: the hyper-enthusiastic, exclamation point-tipped guide for understanding the scores comes straight from the writing test site. I can be exuberant, but the lack of restraint below is not mine.

J'S THEATER'S PROSE

My Brooke-Rose commentary on this blog:

Readable Score: 32 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 10

My recent Drunken Boat book review:

Readable Score: 19 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 12

Opening section of my published short story, "An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution"

Readable Score: 34 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 10

Second section of my published short story, "On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras"

Readable Score: 33 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 10

SOME OTHER RANDOM WORKS:

Opening paragraph of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (translated by J. H. Bernard, 1892, corrected for the tester):

Readable Score: -21 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 20

Declaration of Independence:

Readable Score: 20 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 13

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

Readable Score: 48 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Opening paragraphs of Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written By Himself:

Readable Score: 51 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 7

Opening paragraphs of Herman Melville's Moby Dick:

Readable Score: 45 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8 

Opening excerpt (beginning "The fact of his having married a rich woman") from Henry James's Washington Square (from Google Books)

Readable Score: 31 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 11

Opening excerpt (beginning "Jewel and I come up from the field") from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying:

Readable Score: 47 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Opening excerpt (beginning "124 was spiteful") from Toni Morrison's Beloved:


Readable Score: 61 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 6

Opening paragraphs of Zadie Smith's essay, "Generation Why?", New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010:

Readable Score: 45 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Entire article "$tuck in a f’book bind: Wall St. leaves savvy invest kid in dark," by Mark DeCambre, New York Post, May 22, 2012

Readable Score: 44 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Entire article, "Rutgers Webcam-Spying Defendant Is Sentenced to 30-Day Jail Term", by Kate Zernike, New York Times, May 22, 2012

Readable Score: 45 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Entire article, "US-Pakistan tensions deepen as Obama snubs Zardari at Nato summit", by Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian Online, 21 May 2012:

Readable Score: 29 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 11

Entire article, "Man in his 40s becomes third person to fall down Niagara Falls and SURVIVE after failed 'suicide' plunge," by Daily Mail Reporter, Daily Mail UK Online, 21 May 2012:

Readable Score: 37 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 9

Entire article, "Dancing with the Stars Sizzles in Spectacular Finals," by Dahvi Shira and Mike Fleeman, People Magazine, May 21, 2012:

Readable Score: 37 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 9

Opening paragraphs of George Washington's "First State of the Union Speech," January 8, 1790:

Readable Score: 13 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 13

Opening paragraphs of John Adams's "First State of the Union Speech," November 27, 1797:

Readable Score: 3 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 15

Opening paragraphs of George W. Bush's "First State of the Speech," January 22, 2002:

Readable Score: 47 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 7

Opening paragraphs of Barack H. Obama's "First State of the Union Speech," January 27, 2010:

Readable Score: 49 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 7


1 comment: