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...

Another Look at Strunk and White

Occasionally, it’s worth reading what authorities have to say about other supposed authorities. When we consult a language handbook, it usually doesn’t occur to us to second-guess the author. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, quite possibly the most celebrated handbook in the United States, offers an instructive example of why we should not be so trusting. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, based at the University of Edinburgh, has written bitter denunciations of Elements. First in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education and then in more elaborate form for English Today, Pullum systematically examines several of the guide’s pronouncements and shows how they are frequently based only on prejudice or, worse, reflect the authors’ severe misunderstanding of English grammar. To read Pullum’s work is to watch a career linguist eviscerate a venerable English professor and his student, the renowned E.B. White. Not only does he show their incompetence in the rules they cite, but also he quotes acclaimed authors doing precisely what Struck and White say should be avoided. Is there anything redeeming in the book, then? Not according to Pullum, who calls the vaunted guide an “unkillable zombie,” “one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century.” It’s not going to show up on his reading list any time soon, in other words. Pullum’s main objections are related to grammar, and he dismisses comments about style as “vapid” or “obvious.” Perhaps so, but the guide’s focus on conciseness has a beneficial influence, and a few of its tips can help less experienced writers tighten sentences. Quite possibly, Pullum...

Zakaria & Writing

Chapter 3 of Fareed Zakaria’s latest book In Defense of a Liberal Education has some important remarks about writing, ones that are worth exploring here. Very often, proponents of Liberal Education say that it teaches students how to think. This is fine, but for Zakaria, thoughts only begin to take shape once pen is put to paper. Or, put slightly differently, thoughts become more shapely and coherent once they are worked out and groomed by the writing process. Zakaria writes about an influential English teacher from his youth. Authoritarian and liberal in his use of the red correcting pencil, he impressed upon Zakaria the importance of concise and well-articulated prose. While many today might object to the methods employed by this teacher, few will take issue with the core belief that’s at stake here, namely that ideas don’t come out of the head fully shaped and ready to go to press. Consider Zakaria reflections on his own writing:   When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to sort them out. Writing the first draft of a column or essay is an expression of self-knowledge—learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand.   A few things should jump out at you after reading this. First, someone as established as Zakaria still produces “jumbles” of “half-formed ideas” when he first sets out to write something. And...