The Legacy of Rudolph Flesch

You probably haven’t heard of Rudolph Flesch, but there’s a good chance you’ve encountered his work while using a word processor or other digital applications where writing plays a role. Given that The Art of Plain Talk was published in 1946, and that the studies of writing and language have changed considerably since then, it’s impressive that he is still taken seriously today. So what did Flesch say then that still makes him relevant now? He argues that writing improves when it’s made simpler and easier to read. Flesch tries to approach English scientifically, generating a formula to calculate how writing can be made more readable. He identifies three key attributes to serve as the basis for what he calls “Plain Talk,” his version of clear and accessible writing. First, it has short sentences (he argues that a text becomes difficult to read when sentence length increases beyond 17 words). Second, it is unencumbered by affixes (either prefixes or suffixes or both). Affixes, he believes, negatively affect the readability of a text and should be either minimized or eliminated. Third, it has many personal references (in the form of personal pronouns), as this increases the accessibility of the piece. It’s important to see that the attributes are quantifiable. A tally can be generated for each, and these numbers can be plugged into a formula to generate a readability score. This is the science of Flesch’s work. Typically, evaluations of writing are highly subjective, but by allowing for these attributes to be quantified, a text can be viewed completely objectively, at least in terms of its readability. The readability score...

Analyzing Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

Within contemporary linguistics (the study of language and the way languages work), there are two approaches to grammar, prescriptivism and descriptivism. A brief understanding of these terms gives context for how usage guides like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style are aimed at the general public as well as how the language is studied as a formal science. People who consider themselves wardens of the language are prescriptivists. Firmly convinced there is a ‘right’ way to speak, they believe there is a ‘correct’ English that sets the standard for all other variations of the language. Not surprisingly, this correct English is considered superior to all other forms. Statements such as, “if you want to get a good job, you had better get rid of that accent,” mark a prescriptivist attitude toward language, even if the speaker has good intentions. Prescriptivists tend to be highly unreceptive to change as it applies to language, often making the highly contentious claim that language is constantly eroding and has gotten noticeably worse, even in their lifetime. If prescriptivists are of the opinion that there is a correct English, then it shouldn’t surprise you that the most outspoken advocates are practitioners of this form, of course. Armed with the belief that their English is fundamentally superior to all others, many prescriptivists communicate in a haughty and sanctimonious way. Strunk and White are clearly a part of the prescriptivist camp, Struck probably more so than White. If you look closely at the writing in Elements, his talk of people being ‘illiterate’ if they use certain terms, or ‘vulgar’ if they use others (always ones...