Post-Katrina Jargon

Just What Hurricane Victims Don't Need

A lot has already been written about the breakdown of communication systems during the Katrina Hurricane. Police, fire fighters, and emergency workers were not able to contact one another because of the failure of radios, cell phones and land lines.

Much less has been written about the bureaucratic language that continues to plague residents of the Gulf Coast. Much of the recovery information posted on the Web by local, state, and federal agencies is written at the 16th-grade levels. Unless the Gulf Coast has a much higher percentage of post-graduate degrees, these materials will not be read by those who need them most.

Katrina survivors in Mississippi: recovery agencies did not target this audience.

Katrina destroyed 200,000 homes and 18,000 businesses in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, far surpassing any previous disaster. At least 1,836 lost their lives. Over 1.5 million people were evacuated. A third of them have not returned. Damages are estimated at $81.2 billion US.

On the one-year anniversary of Katrina, huge areas of New Orleans and its suburbs remain ghost towns. Houses sit dark and gutted, some still marked by the bright orange "X" that shows whether they were checked for corpses or not.

Many survivors are struggling with finances and facing emotional stress as they battle with insurers, contractors, and government agencies. Among those with children under 18, 56% say their kids have been affected in negative ways.

For those already under stress, difficult recovery instructions and applications for aid cause endless misunderstandings and delays. Here is a sample of post-Katrina language from a Louisiana State Web site:

The Assistance Centers will help mitigate the potential for misunderstanding and abuse by providing standardized, structured, and guided relationships between homeowners and service providers. In addition, the Assistance Centers will maintain registries of professional service providers and building contractors. Through the Solicitation for Offer, Assistance Centers will be directed by the selected management firm and staffed by contracted experts, which may include non-profit organizations specializing in providing advisory services to homeowners. (79 words, 39 difficult words, 16th-grade reading level).

This could be more easily put as:

Use the Assistance Centers if you have problems with builders or other services. These centers also keep lists of approved builders and services. We will attempt to select companies and non-profit groups who can best run these centers (38 words, 6 difficult words, 8th-grade reading level).

The following is from a report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on disaster relief:

The Flood Recovery Guidance is interim data produced to help communities respond to the need to immediately process permits necessary to begin reconstruction. By the end of 2005, FEMA will issue maps showing the inundation area and measured height of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Advisory Base Flood Elevations will not be mapped for areas where FEMA is recommending the use of freeboard; however, in areas where Advisory Base Flood Elevations are calculated using advisory Stillwater elevations and ground elevation information, Advisory Base Flood Elevations will be mapped (87 words, 34 difficult words, 16th-grade reading level).

That could be just as easily put:

The Flood Recovery Guidance helps agencies give permits for rebuilding. By the end of 2005, we will issue maps showing the flooded areas and the flood heights. The maps, however, will not show the Advisory Base Flood Elevations in places where we recommend the use of freeboard (47 words, 9 difficult words, 9th-grade reading level).

Shortening the text always improves understanding and increases the amount of the text that readers will read (reading persistence). The long texts in these government Web sites contain more information than is required. They not only are too difficult for the average reader. They also may violate President Clinton's Directive of 1998 and Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act requiring language that the general public can understand.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Plain-Language Masterpiece

Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.—Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee: "plain to the simplest intelligence."
Photo: Chicago Tribune

PUBLISHED July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller. It won great critical acclaim for its author, Harper Lee, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961.Since its publication, the book has sold more than 30 million copies. It remains a bestseller today and has earned a secure place in the canon of American literature. A survey by the Book of the Month Club in 1991 revealed that the Bible is only book that Americans read more frequently. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll conducted by the Library Journal.

The book inspired a classic film that won three acadamy awards in 1963, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor for Gregory Peck. The American Film Institute rated Peck's character, Atticus Finch, the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

The book obviously struck a chord, coming as it did in the Civil Rights Movement and addressing what means is to be human. The author also captured the language of the rural South where she grew up. In 7th-grade English, she has the narrator, "Scout," carry us through the escapades of her brother Jem and the crisis facing her father and the community.

There was never a better example of the force and eloquence that siimple language can accomplish.

When Richmond, Virginia, banned the book from its schools in 1967, Lee wrote to the Richmond Plain News Leader:

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that 'To Kill a Mockingbird' spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is 'immoral' has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

Readability Aids

A New Syllable Counter

COUNTING syllables can be a problem when you are trying to apply the Flesch, Fry, or SMOG formulas. Whether you are counting syllables by hand or writing a computer program to do it, deciding what constitutes a syllable can be difficult. One standard solution is to look up the syllables in a dictionary.

That is exactly what Alain Trottier does in his new online syllable counter at: http://www.wordscount.info. His program uses a look-up dictionary as the basis for the syllable count.

On the same Web page, he offers an online SMOG calculator that uses the same technique. He promises to do the same with the Flesch and Fry formulas.

Statistical Modeling of Readability

The November, 2005, issue of Journal of American Society for Information Science and Technology carried an interesting new method for predicting the readability of a text. "Predicting readability with statistical models" by Kevin Collins-Thompson and Jamie Callan, uses the probability of words at different grade levels to predict the reading level of a text.

The study reports correlations of .63 to .79 with comprehension as measured by different sets of reading tests. While these figures are not as high as the popular formulas in use today, the results are promising. Perhaps in combination with a syntactic factor such as sentence length, the method could usher in a new era in readability testing.

You can download the study at no cost from:


Online Word-Frequency Comparison

One very effective approach to readability testing is word frequency. The more a word is used, the easier it becomes.

You can get a word-frequency analysis by pasting in up to 1,000 words at Online Readability Software at:


It will compare the frequency of your words with those used on the Web. Rather than looking at syllables and word length, the program checks how often each word appears in typical written English found on the Internet.

The program operates like a search engine. It crawls through hundreds of Web pages daily extracting words and parsing through sentences. Each word goes into a database together with its frequency, based on how often it appears on the Internet.

When you paste in your text, the program compares your words with those in the database. The final numbers tell you how your language compares to that on the Internet. Values higher than the average are considered easy to read, while those lower are more difficult to understand.

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, Ph.D., International Consultant on Adult Literacy

"I finally got around to reading your article. It is very good, scholarly, and complete. Even though readability formulas have been around for years, I think that the biggest current problem is that they are not widely used. Much education of writers, editors, and general population is needed."
—Edward Fry, Ph.D. Reading Consultant.

"I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the level of scholarship in your amazing work, The Principles of Readability.
—Eldon McMurray, Ph.D. Candidate, Utah Valley State College.

Plain Language in the News

Worst press release ever:

Testing the readability of your blog:

Health and illiteracy:

Gobbledygook and the California Coastal Commission:

Doublespeak in business:

Phone rights you can understand:

Plain-English awards:

Ballots lacking readability:

State health Web sites inaccessible to many:

Adults enjoy teen literature:

International Literacy Day:

The American literacy crisis: