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...

Tricky Plurals (Part 2)

On rare occasions, I get a letter where the attempt to pluralize my surname ends up being a grotesque error: The Yate’s. Though I have never extended my research project in an effort to explain these errors, I’m confident they’re a result of panic taking over when the writer has no confidence in a rule. In general, people tend to get into a swivet when apostrophes are added to nouns that end in ‘s.’ So let’s take the time to review the rule. To get clear, apostrophes are used to form contractions (such as it’s, can’t, or wouldn’t) as well as to show possession (as in “That is my father’s car”). We are dealing with the second use in this post. Let’s start first with nouns that don’t end in ‘s’.’ If the noun is singular, you add ‘s to the end in order to denote possession. If the noun is plural, you need the apostrophe only. For example:   The man’s wallet is on the desk. The ladies’ bridge game is cancelled. (the singular, of course, is ‘lady’)   This is old hat, I suspect. Typically, style guides tell you to use an apostrophe after famous names that end in ‘s,’ such as Jesus or Achilles. But for less exalted names—to show that the car belongs to Chris, for example—the teaching has been, until quite recently, to treat them the same as other nouns, namely to show possession by adding ‘s. A sentence would then read, “Chris’s car broke down on the bridge the other night.” This is the point where, in my experience, most people look upon...

Tricky Plurals

Now that December has arrived, holiday cards are slowly appearing in my mailbox. Well not really, but they’ll be here soon. And every year, I have to laugh a little bit at how some friends, often highly intelligent people, treat my surname in the plural: “The Yates.” I don’t get offended at this. Furthermore, I tend not to think this is an instance of people being sloppy with their writing. So let’s look at the mistake (and what’s potentially at the root of it) as the substance for a potentially productive essay. Imagine yourself a speaker of another language trying to learn English. How do you pluralize a noun? In most cases, you add either an ‘s’ or an ‘es’ to the end. But there are noted irregularities, for example ‘children,’ ‘fish,’ and ‘deer.’ Then, there are loanwords from other languages, such as medium/media (Latin), criterion/criteria (Greek), panino/panini (Italian). Because they are foreign words, they follow different rules for denoting plurality. When most people use these words (pay attention next time when you hear them in everyday speech), they may be ignorant of both the etymology as well as the correct inflection when it comes to singularity and plurality. Often you will hear people say “one solid criteria” or “no lettuce on my panini.” Society is pretty relaxed about this on the whole. Every now and again, an article is published by an acerbic purist making a fuss about all the people ordering one panini. But these tend to be exceptions rather than the norm. Plus, it is easier, I submit, to be relaxed about inflection as it applies...

Resources For Your Discipline

The first thing you must do if you are looking to improve your writing, even before you start establishing goals, is ask yourself how much time you have to dedicate to the task. And be honest and realistic with yourself. Are you looking to improve your writing just enough so that you can get into the best business school possible with no intentions of working to better yourself after that? Are you looking to improve your writing because your boss has demanded it with threat of punishment? Are you interested in improving your writing over the course of many years because you have ambitions of writing a memoir? In each of the above examples, there is motivation to improve. What each of the above questions attempts to stress is not that writing should be the most enjoyable thing in your life (this is perhaps what some teachers in your past may have stressed); rather, that there is a connection between writing and time. In general, the more time you can commit to writing, the more improvement you will see. This is why quick fix solutions tend not to work. Writing is a skill that takes time to acquire. This is the simple truth. In addition to the practicing and reading that I talked about last time, there are a few things you can do to take an active approach to your writing discipline. The challenge for many of us is that we may be working with gaps in knowledge, or, worse, incorrect information that we picked up somewhere along the way in our education. Combine this with a lack...

Don’t be Lazy!

Business leaders constantly decry the quality of writing in the workplace. Most of the time, comments are directed towards the education system and its failure to produce a young working class who can write competently. The blame game is a nasty one indeed. What I’m interested in here is how we present ourselves formally in writing and more specific, the reason for our mistakes. While the rules of grammar and punctuation may have loosened up over the last century, mistakes still exist. If an error is made in writing, it can often be unclear as to whether the writer is ignorant of the grammar or is just being lazy with respect to its application. To further compound the problem, some writers may have been taught poorly when they were students. Perhaps they were given incorrect examples of what constitutes a participle, for example. They’re neither ignorant nor lazy, then, but there is a problem nevertheless. These writers, if there writing is to prosper, must be willing to unlearn what they have been taught and then learn correctly. This requires considerable effort. The fact of the matter is that you simply cannot afford to be present yourself as a lazy writer, even you are willing to acknowledge that laziness marked your approach to writing at some point in the past. You must start by developing a discipline when addressing the practice, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. Chances are you bring discipline to something else in your life: a sport, a musical instrument, exercise, cooking, work. The trick is to begin translating some of this focus to writing. Not...