This morning’s episode of the radio programme Fry’s English Delight, the last in the series incidentally, looked at plain English (listen here). I occasionally write posts about the Plain English Campaign (eg here), but I hadn’t known before today that its founder, Chrissie Maher, launched the campaign after she herself found official forms so difficult to understand – she only learnt to read and write when she was a teenager – and didn’t want others to suffer the embarrassment and humiliation of having to ask other people what something meant.
The SMOG readability measure was also discussed on the programme (SMOG stands for Simple Measure of Gobbledygook). This measure uses a complicated mathematical formula, based on two variables – word length and number of words in a sentence – to give an idea of how readable a text is and how suitable for its intended audience. Try it for yourself here.
Professor Colin Harrison blamed poor readability of exam questions, rather than student ignorance, for some poor school results. For instance, the question in a science paper ‘Which of these is a pungent gas?’ resulted in 34% of candidates getting the right answer, whereas when it was reworded as ‘Which of these gases would make you cough?’, 70% of candidates got it right. This shows, said Professor Harrison, that the exam paper is not testing scientific knowledge exclusively, but also requires a sophisticated level of vocabulary. He did a study to find out which is the hardest school subject to study, based on the language used when teaching and assessing the subject. The answer was geography. In other words, understanding geography involves getting to grips with lots of difficult words.
Alas, the most readable texts of all tend to be adverts and marketing blurb. In a study done among parents at a children’s hospital, the hardest documents or websites to understand were those purporting to offer help written by parents of children with a particular disease. They had become experts on the subject as a result of their own children’s experience, and so tended to use technical language. The texts that respondents found easiest to understand were advertising flyers and promotional booklets encouraging parents of newborns to buy a particular brand of baby formula. On the subject of advertising, one of the most successful advertising slogans ever – so successful that it has become an everyday idiom – is ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’, a slogan for the decidedly unglamorous Ronseal wood sealant. Even the prime minister used it approvingly in one of his speeches (as discussed in this BBC piece).
Of course, there is more to suitability for particular age groups than the length of words and sentences. The sentence ‘To be or not to be’ uses very simple English, and a readability measure would tell us that it is appropriate for a six-year-old, but, as we all know, there’s more to this sentence than the words alone.
This blog post scores 18.9 on the SMOG gobbledygook index (see here for the tool), which means it is pitched at a level above The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. That is a fair enough estimation. I know that the people who read this blog are a brainy bunch.