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Opening Arguments

Are we clear on this?

So, Dummy, how'd you like the State of the Union speech? You can read all the political reactions in plenty of places and probably had already decided it was a good or bad speech before you even heard it. So, let's try a different angle:

President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address again rated at an 8th grade comprehension level, on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test — the third lowest score of any State of the Union address since 1934.

The University of Minnesota's Smart Politics conducted an analysis on the last 70 State of the Union addresses and found that President Obama's three addresses have the lowest grade average of any modern president. "Obama's average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 10.7 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors," they conclude.

This isn't a criticism. (If I wanted to go there, I'd talk about content.) There is much to be said for making sure your message is clear and simple enough for the great majority of people to comprehend. And if what a president says isn't important enough to fuss over the comprehension level, what is? Making your message clear isn't the same as dumbing down your message.

Those of us in the newspaper business are very aware of the Flesch-Kincaid test.  As it happens, the 8th-grade level is what aspiring journalists have been told newspaers should be written to. (Hey, Obama can work for us if he loses in November!) Flesch-Kincaid is a rather pedestrian way to judge writing,  using a formula that counts the number of words in sentences and the number of syllables in words -- short sentences and short words are more readable. It's out of favor a little now (see this interresting take from 2005). But it's one metric that can help writers and speakers gauge their work, and I find it helpful to check my stuff with it from time to time.

Someone has put Flesch-Kincaid into a calculator app -- here it is, if you want to play around with it.

I tested the following sentences, for example:

"Our president is a typical holder of the naive belief in making life fair, which requires only the proper number of government rules to realize." Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 15

"The president is a silly man who does bad things." Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 5