A Titanic Shipwreck

The EU Constitution Crashes

SMART SHOPPERS know better than to sign anything they don't understand. Citizens of France and the Netherlands took that lesson to heart in refusing to ratify the EU Constitution. And well they should.

Former French President Valérie Giscard d'Estaing was Chairman of the European Convention that met in Brussels in 2002 and 2003 to produce the document. In his opening remarks, he compared the assembly to the 1787 Philadelphia convention that prepared a constitution for the U.S. He hoped to prepare a little booklet, like the U.S. Constitution, that could fit into the pockets of European citizens and carried close to their hearts.

The European Convention in session:
bound for disaster

From the beginning, however, it was evident that the Constitution was not going to be enjoyable reading for the citizens of Europe—or anybody else.

The U.S. Constitution contains 4,000 words in 11 pages and seven articles, all written at a democratic 9th-grade level.

The European Constitution is a badly organized, 855-page, 156,447-word document written at the 16th grade level. The first and most important part is missing a title. Some of the 465 articles ended up in the wrong sections.

Here is an example of the language:

Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level. The institutions of the Union shall apply the principle of subsidiarity as laid down in the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. National Parliaments shall ensure compliance with that principle in accordance with the procedure set out in that Protocol.

The U.S. Bill of Rights deals with all that in 28 concise words:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The European Union prepared a "Presentation to the Citizens of Europe" to explain the Constitution to citizens of the different countries. It is written in the same bureaucratic prose. For example:

The principle of subsidiarity is designed to ensure that whenever the Union exercises its powers it acts only to the extent that such action is actually required and brings added value to action taken by the Member States. The principle of subsidiarity is designed to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the people, checking constantly that the action to be taken at the Community level is justified in relation to what is possible at the national, regional or local levels. The principle of proportionality targets the same objective of ensuring proper exercise of powers, stipulating that the content and form of action taken by the Union must not go further than what is necessary to attain the objectives of the Treaty.

This citizens' guide goes on like that for 32 pages.

An Afterthought Document

It was not the aim of the European Convention to form a new government but to bring the people's consent to the existing treaties that created the European Union. The official title of the Constitution is "A Treaty to Establish a Constitution for Europe." It contains the six previous treaties on which the current European Union was established.

Although there were attempts to "constitutionalize" these treaties, the document lacks two basic requirements for a modern constitution:

  1. The people's recognition of themselves as authors of the document, authorizing the government they want, and setting limits on its powers. Such a consensus can only be achieved by public debate and democratic decision-making.
  2. The transparency and readability of the text describing the people's action.

All of that is missing in the current document. If the purpose of the Constitution was to bring citizens to authorize the founding treaties, it fails to do that.

Take, for example the first article:

1. Reflecting the will of the citizens and States of Europe to build a common future, this Constitution establishes the European Union, on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common. The Union shall coordinate the policies by which the Member States aim to achieve these objectives, and shall exercise on a Community basis the competences they confer on it.

The citizens of Europe are plainly not the creators of this document, as in "We the People..." They are instead referred to in the third person or not at all. It is not clear where the government's powers come from.

What now?

Chairman D'Estaing:
asleep at the helm.

The delegates at Brussels did face complex issues. We cannot blame the them for not having a Thomas Jefferson or John Adams to give them a hand.

We do blame them, however, for neglecting the role of the people in their Constitution and for not making it easy for them to read.

The European Constitution is a bloated and botched attempt to give Europeans what they need for the development of their Union. There is no doubt about the role that bad language played in this colossal failure. The bureaucrats of the European Union have been very successful in imposing their quality manufacturing standards on the rest of the world. They have yet to learn about quality in language and how it affects their work.

As they pick over the wreckage, they should take a quick lesson in simple salesmanship: Don't pitch your goods in language that people don't understand.

The Dale-Chall Readability Formula

Getting it Right

Edgar Dale

THE DALE-CHALL Readability Formula, first published in 1948, may not be as popular as the some of the other formulas, but has always been regarded as the most accurate.

The formula was created by Edgar Dale and Jeanne S. Chall. Dale was a professor of education at Ohio State University and respected authority on communications. He worked his whole life to improve the readability of books, pamphlets, and newsletters—the stuff of everyday reading.

Jeanne S. Chall

Jeanne Chall was the founder and director for 20 years of the Harvard Reading Laboratory. She had led the battle for teaching early reading systematically with phonics. Her 1967 book Learning to Read: The Great Debate, brought research to the forefront of the phonics debate. For many years, she also was the reading consultant for TV's Sesame Street and The Electric Company.

Dale and Chall designed their formula for adults and children above the 4th grade. They wanted to correct certain shortcomings in the Flesch Reading Ease formula. Unlike most other formulas, it does not use the length of the word to assess word difficulty. Instead, it uses a count of "hard" words—words not found on a list of 3,000 words known to be familiar to 80 percent of fourth-grade readers.

For a copy of the Dale-Chall hard-word list, go to the Okapi Web site:

Using the Dale-Chall Formula

To manually apply the formula, take these steps:

  1. Select 100-word samples throughout the text (for books, every tenth page is recommended).
  2. Compute the average sentence length in words.
  3. Compute the percentage of words not on the Dale list of 3,000 words.
  4. Compute this equation:
    Raw Score = .1579PDW + .0496ASL + 3.6365
    Raw Score = reading grade of a reader who can answer one-half of the test questions on the passage.
    PDW= Percentage of Difficult Words (words not on the Dale-Chall word list)
    ASL = Average Sentence Length in words.
  5. Finally, use the following table to get the Adjusted Score:
Raw Score Adjusted Score
4.9 and below Grade 4 and below
5.0 to 5.9 Grades 5-6
6.0 to 6.9 Grades 7-8
7.0 to 7.9 Grades 9-10
8.0 to 8.9 Grades 11-12
9.0 to 9.9 Grades 13-15 (college)
10 and above Grades 16 and above (college graduate)

You can also use a free online computerized version of the Dale-Chall formula at these Web sites. Just copy and paste your text into the text boxes:

The Okapi Web Site: (up to 170 words):

The Words Count Web site (up to 20 pages):

You can also read an Acrobat (pdf) version of the original 1948 Dale-Chall article, "A New Formula for Predicting Readability," in The Classic Readability Studies:

The New Dale-Chall Formula

In 1995, Dale and Chall published Readability Revisited: The New Dale-Call Readability Formula, which is available from Brookline Books. The book updated their list of 3,000 easy words and improved their original formula, then 47 years old.

The new formula correlates .92 with comprehension as measured by reading tests, making it the most valid of the readability formulas.

At the time of writing this, the New Dale-Chall formula is not yet available on the Internet. You can easily apply the formula manually, however, using the instructions, worksheet, word list, and tables provided in the book. The book is also recommended for its update of the research on readability, a chapter on the importance of vocabulary in writing, and a chapter on using the formula for writing texts.

Don't disregard the original formula described above, however, and available on the Internet. It is the second-most valid formula available and still in wide use.

Plain Language in the News

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Consent Forms Should Be More Readable

Law and the Voting Process for Disabled People

Massaging the Message

Medical Jargon and Patient Care:

The Jargon of Car Ads:

The Jargon of Privacy Policies:

Stop the Pollie Waffle:

Speak English, Mr. Glazer

Death Sentences by Don Watson:

Florida Governor Signs Plain-Language Insurance Bill:

Websilte Wins Accessibility Award: