March 15

Readability Scales and Writing

Thanks to The Numbers Guy, Carl Bialik, whose column appears every other Friday in the Wall Street Journal, I’ve been reminded of those infamous readability scales that judge the grade-level of your writing.

Since the Flesch-Kindcaid readability formula has been built into Microsoft Word’s Tools function, one can easily check one’s "readability level" while using this ubiquitous word processor.  The formula, much like all the others, counts the number of words in a sentence and then the number of syllables in each word.  Shorter sentences and shorter words, syllable-wise, are easier to read.

However, as Bialik points out, short words such as adz, auk and lea are virtually unknown to most English readers, but they would score high on readability.

In other words, these formulas contain fundamental flaws that some researchers are working to fix.

One last example.  Here is a nonsense passage that scores high in readability (the infamous concept that everything should be readable and understandable by a fifth grader):

"Acuity of eagles whistle truck kidney.  Head for the treacle sump catch and but.  What figgle faddle scratch dog and whistle?"

Get the idea?  If not, read more here.

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Posted March 15, 2008 by Gary McCarty in category "Grammar Sucks


  1. By Mister Thorne on

    RE: “Acuity of eagles whistle truck kidney. Head for the treacle sump catch and but. What figgle faddle scratch dog and whistle?”

    Here’s why you can’t measure the readability of that sample: it contains no sentences. Not one!

    And, if you don’t like Flesch-Kincaid, then try Dale-Chall.

    That Microsoft picked a readabilty formula for Word (or a default typeface) doesn’t make it the right one to use.

  2. By grammarblogger on

    That they’re nonsense fragments and rated highly readable by Flesch-Kincaid is, of course, the whole point.


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