I’m making my way through the book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt. So far, I’ve posted tidbits about his analysis of adverbs, exclamation points, gender identification in writing and writers following their own advice.
This post deals with a fascinating subject. It centers on simplicity in writing and how the words that are used determine the level of literacy.
Blatt starts out with the example of the work of Dr. Seuss. As a children’s writer, early in his career, Seuss was issued a challenge from his editor. After publishing Horton Hears a Who!, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo, his editor challenged him to write a story that first graders can’t put down.
Seuss was given a list of about 300 words and was told to make a book out of them. After months of struggling with it, he used 220 unique words to create The Cat in the Hat, his second best selling book. His best selling book, Green Eggs and Ham, only uses 50 words and all but one, anywhere, are one syllable.
That’s great for children’s books. What about the books we read as adults? Blatt goes on to talk about the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test. This is a mathematical formula that is capable of measuring the simplicity or complexity of any text.
Flesch’s formula is fairly simple. Blatt gives an example of its use by applying it to the first sentence in the State of the Union Address from presidents George Washington and George W. Bush.
“I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs.”
– George Washington’s first State of the Union Address
This sentence earns a score of 15 according to Flesch’s formula. It has 43 syllables and 23 words.
Compare this to George W. Bush’s opening sentence from his last State of the Union Address.
“Seven years have passed since I first stood before you at this rostrum.”
– George W. Bush’s last State of the Union Address
This sentence, at 16 syllables and 13 words, earns a score of 4.
This formula has its critics. It seems to work more fairly over longer texts, but it’s interesting to compare the language and complexity over this span of time between presidents.
Applying Flesch’s formula to a passage in Green Eggs and Ham, results in a score of -1.3 where applying it to a complex book like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury where he has a single sentence of over 1,400 words, the score is 551. These two works are considered outliers, however.
The Flesch-Kincaid test is usually applied to political speeches. Back to the State of the Union Address example, the formula finds that this presidential speech was at an eighteenth grade level prior to 1900. It sunk to a twelfth grade level in the 1900s and has now sunk well below the 10th grade level.
You can look at this as either the speeches being geared to a wider audience or presidents are becoming less intelligent as time goes on.
Blatt supersizes his analysis for books. He digitized 563 New York Times Bestsellers from 1960 forward and ran the Flesch-Kincaid analysis on them.
In the 1960s, the average score was 8.0, falling to 7.2 for the 1970s, 6.8 in the 1980s, 6.6 in the 1990s, 6.0 in the 2000s and 2010s.
With a high benchmark score of 8.0, Blatt then analyzed the 563 books to see what percentage of them, in each decade, exceeded that benchmark. From a high of 47% in the 1960s to 24% in the 1970s to 18% in the 1980s, 3% in the 1990s, 2% in the 2000s and back up to 3% in the 2010s.
Looking at the lower end, the results are similar. With the low benchmark score of 6.0, Blatt found that 11% of books in the 1960s were blow this mark, 3% in the 1970s, 8% in the 1980s, 24% in the 1990s, 40% in the 2000s and 48% in the 2010s.
Blatt then took writers that have had at least seven number one bestsellers since 1960 and plotted them by their average score by decade. The results are fascinating. (I apologize for the quality of the image)
I hope you find these types of analyses fascinating like I do. On the whole, does it mean anything. Are books really getting “dumber” as time passes, or is the language just evolving? It’s hard to say with any certainty. It’s just food for thought and a glimpse into the complexity, and simplicity, of writing.