Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Congress Talk Pretty One Day

Attention again, all grammarians, armchair psychologists and nitpickers. Somebody with a lot of time on his hands has come out with a study showing that Congress critters cannot string a coherent sentence together as well as they used to. Our lawmakers have actually been rated according to grade level, and the results are not pretty. Does it surprise anyone that the newest, most right wing extremist members also rank the lowest in the elocution department?

The Sunlight Foundation, using its own Capitol Words invention, arrived at the conclusion that Congress has sunk a full grade level in the past seven years. My first reaction was, only one notch? And if you've also been wondering how it is that Americans consistently vote these clowns back into office over and over again, against their own economic interests, the answer is that Congress is still smarter than the average shlub, who reads at late 8th grade level:

Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is at a 9.4 grade level. Most major newspapers are written at between an 11th and 14th grade level. (You can find more comparisons here)
All these analyses use the Flesch-Kincaid test, which produces the 'reads at a n-th grade level' terminology that is likely familiar to many readers. At its core, Flesch-Kincaid equates higher grade levels with longer words and longer sentences. It is important to understand the limitations of this metric: it tells us nothing about the clarity or correctness of a passage of text. But although an admittedly crude tool, Flesch-Kincaid can nonetheless provide insights into how different legislators speak, and how Congressional speech has been changing.
So in other words, if Michele Bachman utters a sentence like: "As the mother of 260 foster children, I consider myself a huge fan of antidisestablishmentarianism" she would score off the congressional charts? Sorry, but this measuring tool is just screaming out to be gamed by stupid cheaters to make themselves look good. But to be fair, according to the Congressional database, Bachmann actually scored above the average shlub, speaking at a mid-9th grade level, or approximately the degree of difficulty of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

What a nightmare. Somebody wake me up.


Jay - Ottawa said...

Through the 1980s I subscribed to a monthly newsletter called “The Underground Grammarian.” It was written by Richard Mitchell, a college professor (PhD, English, Syracuse University) who taught at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, now Rowan University. I think he would approve of Karen’s essays parsing latter-day claptrap.

“The Underground Grammarian” was high-order satire feasting on the misuse of the English language, not by your man in the street but by credentialed people who should know better. He went after politicians, business leaders, newspaper editors, and most especially the “educationists.” (This was daring, because Glassboro was founded as a normal school, i.e., teachers’ academy. He was surrounded by the enemy throughout his stay at the university.) “Educationists” would probably score high on the “Capital Words” screening tool, Karen, because educationists go wild with big words and long sentences.

Mitchell’s newsletter was not so much about dangling modifiers but about muddled thinking by important people. When leaders obfuscate, beware. They’re either idiots or they are trying to put one over on you.

In issue after issue, Mitchell presented examples of bad grammar leading to bad ideas leading to, intentionally or unintentionally, bad events. Bad English [or insert your favorite language] is a fast track to ignorance and the end of democracy. Mitchell was especially concerned about the correlation between faulty English and faulty government.

After a while he built up a readership large enough to help him scout, like whistleblowers, for howlers in print passing for wisdom in newspapers, business publications, university lectures and government memoranda..

Mitchell died in 2002, but every issue of “The Underground Grammarian” and every page of his four books are available free, thanks to friends who thought it important to the nation that his warnings survive him. For a taste of Mitchell’s work, see essay #1, Vol. 6 (Jan 1982).


Denis Neville said...

Obama’s message is simple.

Via Eric Ostermeier at Smart Politics, Obama's 2012 State of the Union Address was at 8th grade level for third straight year. Obama owns three of the six lowest-scoring addresses since FDR. In Obama's own words: "My message is simple."


Is it surprising that he speaks to the American people at that level? He could probably go even lower. It never ceases to amaze me how really, really stupid a lot of our fellow citizens are.

Idiocracy. The dumbing down of our culture so as not to offend those that do not have the capacity to comprehend.

Should the president should speak to Congress at a higher level than the people? But the Congress is elected by its citizens as their representatives. Dumbocracy in America.

It’s not just the grammar… It’s the morally bankruptcy.

“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” - Jonathan Swift

Via Atrios, Foxy America:

GRETCHEN CARLSON (FOX News): “45 million Americans received food stamps. That's a 70 percent increase since President Obama took office. So you have to wonder: Are entitlements the new American dream?”

MICHAEL GOODWIN (Fox contributor and New York Post columnist ): “People didn't want to accept a handout because they were ashamed to do it. There was a kind of social contract that said you don't do it…That was part of the American founding virtue. The sense of shame is gone.”

So the problem isn't really hunger or poverty. It's that they're not ashamed enough about taking the help.


A fellow traveler posts: “Entitlement programs are like spreading gangrene on the American society. To save the patient it is sometime necessary to cut off the limb so that the patient can survive. If this is not done, the patient will eventually pass away.”

In other words, save society by starving part of it. Likely half of the 45 million are children.

“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” - Jonathan Swift

Denis Neville said...

Grammar schmamer

“Ignorant people think it is the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it is the sickening grammar that they use.” - Mark Twain

Ever heard of the joke about a panda?

“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation:

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

― Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Read Lynne Truss's book.

“Part of one's despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation. Whisper it in petrified little-boy tones: dead punctuation is invisible to everyone else - yet we see it all the time. No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to "get a life" by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves. Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions. Being burned as a witch is not safely enough off the agenda.”

“We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.”

A case for both the conventions of written language and clear thinking.

Zee said...

@Karen, @Jay and @Denis--

It's hard enough watching my ideas picked apart by people who are both brighter and better-informed than I am.

I spend enough time--too much, according to Mrs. Zee--just trying to express my ideas more-or-less coherently! Now I need to worry about where I put my semicolons and commas, too?

Such a tough crowd!

PS: Even though I am not a hard-core stickler on grammar, I love the "panda joke!"

Anne Lavoie said...

10 years ago I routinely wrote health material for the public in my public health nursing role. I was informed that I should write at the 5th grade reading level and was shown a tool in Microsoft Word to check my level. It took a LOT of effort, but I finally got the hang of it by using words of 5 letters or less and brief sentences.

That was back in the early 2000's. I'm sure the reading level has gone down further since then. If you need to deal with the public, that's just what you have to do. I guess it just goes to show how exceptional we are in the world. How many other countries have to dumb down their public communication year after year?

Denis Neville said...

Another favorite of mine was Edwin Newman, author of “Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?” and “A Civil Tongue,” with his passion for the correct and civil use of language.

“Since nothing is more important to a society than the language it uses — there would be no society without it — we would be better off if we spoke and wrote with exactness and grace, and if we preserved, rather than destroyed, the value of language.” – Edwin Newman

I can only imagine what Newman would say about today’s world of Twitter - “The Twittonary — The Twitter Dictionary of Twitterific Words” – and its butchery of language. Can any Twitterhead write a cogent sentence or to speak with some degree of articulation?

Some of my favorite Newman quotes:

“For a while I thought it clever to ask people who were spattering me with Y’knows why, if I knew, they were telling me. After having lunch alone with some regularity, I dropped the question.”

He delighted in telling about the man he once interviewed whose answer to a question was, “Well, y’know, you never know, y’know?”

"A civil tongue means to me a language that is not bogged down in jargon, not puffed up with false dignity, not studded with trick phrases that have lost their meaning. It is direct, specific, concrete, vigorous, colorful, subtle and imaginative when it should be, and as lucid and eloquent as we are able to make it. It is something to revel in and enjoy."

“Few things concentrate the mind more efficiently than the necessity of saying what you mean. It brings you face to face with what you are talking about, what you are actually proposing. It gets you away from the catch phrases that not merely substitute for thought but preclude it.”

May we all benefit from his great appreciation of words and their proper use.

Kat said...

Well folks, just look at the top three titles on Amazon's bestselling book list. Need I say more?
The Times had an article on libraries carrying the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. I had never even considered that libraries would carry it. I checked my library's catalog online. Sure enough-- they had over 1000 copies between the three titles!
Please don't tell me this is about "getting people interested in reading". It is not like they'll make the jump to Henry Miller and then be on their way to Montaigne.
This is about juicing circulation numbers pure and simple.
What does this have to do with grammar? Not much I suppose, but if you want to see some truly bad fifth grade level writing see the first pages of the novel that are available on Amazon.

Neil Gillespie said...

@Kat, re Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey was banned in Brevard County Florida public libraries according to a CBS news story

Libraries Ban ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ For Being ‘Porn’


"BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. (CBS Tampa) – "Fifty Shades of Grey," the tantalizing tome whose erotic themes have helped earned it the top spot on the New York Times’ best seller list, has proven far too colorful for Brevard County libraries."

"Brevard County Public Libraries elected to remove the books from their stocks after reading the material for themselves and subsequently deeming it inappropriate."

""[W]e bought some copies before we realized what it was. We looked at it, because it’s been called ‘mommy porn’ and ‘soft porn,’" Cathy Schweinsberg, library services director, told the Palm Beach Post. "We don’t collect porn.""

"She additionally noted to the paper that no one in the community had requested the book’s removal."

But elsewhere the book is popular. Below is a link to a video from the NBC Nightly News of Brian Williams calling Fifty Shades a "dirty book", with a clip of Obama on The View feigning ignorance of the book (he’ll ask Michelle about it when he gets home, Obama said). The New York Public Library has 4200 people on the waiting list for Fifty Shades of Grey. But a number of other libraries have banned the book.


So Fifty Shades has a dual controversy: A popular book of questionable literary value that is banned in some libraries as porn.

Kat said...

@Neil--"banning"? -- a library does not have to purchase a book. There are a number of books that I would like my library to carry but they don't. I was looking for some titles by Hamlin Garland and they had not one. Surely they could carry one copy of Main Travelled Roads if they insist on purchasing 1200 copies from the Grey trilogy.