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  7 January 2008—Number 35  
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Smart Language: Readers,  Readability, and the Grading of Text

Unlocking Language: The Classic Readability Studies

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An Ear for Language

Write Like You Speak

FOR centuries, the best writers dedicated themselves to duplicating the sounds and rhythms of spoken language. Spoken language has long been regarded as the best model for plain writing.

Although there are differences between spoken and written language, they have a great deal in common. Good writers know how to bring the benefits of speech into their writing.


Not just for hearing. The ear also governs balance, the sense of position, voice, speech, language, and thought.

Speech is more efficient and streamlined than writing. In 1880, English Professor Lucius Sherman of the University of Nebraska wrote in Analytics of Literature:

Literary English, in short, will follow the forms of the standard spoken English from which it comes. No man should talk worse than he writes, no man writes better than he should talk… The oral sentence is clearest because it is the product of millions of daily efforts to be clear and strong. It represents the work of the race for thousands of years in perfecting an effective instrument of communication.

The hearing structures in the brain govern written as well as spoken language. The written word is a symbol of a sound, which is in the domain of the ear. All language and most of thought is based on sound. All written language points to a speaker. Even an isolated reader is engaging in a conversation.

Sound advice from Rudolf Flesh

Rudolf Flesch spent his whole career showing us how writing should reflect conversational English. His 1946 book, The Art of Plain Talk, was a landmark in the history of plain language. In chapters such as "Listen to Plain Talk," "The Grammar of Gossip," and "Follow the Language," he emphasizes that plain language is all about how people talk.

In 1949, Flesch published The Art of Readable Writing. A chapter called "An Ear for Writing," starts with this quote from linguist E. H. Sturtevant: "Spoken language is the primary phenomenon, and writing is only a more or less imperfect reflection of it."


Rudolf Flesch: bringing the sound of speech into writing.

Flesch went on to say:

The newest thing these days in college English teaching is something called communication. The idea is that writing shouldn't be treated any longer as a poor relation of English literature but as something that has to do with the way we talk....

In short, the centuries-old struggle between literary and colloquial English is almost over and Write as You Talk has become the almost universally accepted rule.

But what does it mean to "write as you talk"? That's where the trouble starts.... You can't actually write the way you talk. You can, however put a reasonable facsimile of your ordinary talking self on paper. You can purposely put into your writing certain things that will make it sound like talk.

One of the handiest devices in English is the use of contractions such as I'm, you're, you've, it's, isn't, don't, won't, and let's. But don't use contractions carelessly, says Flesch. You have to pay attention to how they sound in the sentence.

According to Flesch, frequently referring to humans also creates and holds interest. His own writing is the best example of this. He addresses the reader directly with statements that continually bring the writer and the reader into view:

  • Now that we know what to do...
  • This is, in a nutshell, the best advice you can get anywhere...
  • This leaves us with Fowler's second rule...
  • If you want to measure word difficulty, you have to...
  • Let me show you how it is done...
  • I have a notion that...
  • Let me add a warning...
  • Just to show you how...
In 1949, Flesch introduced, along with his Reading Ease formula, his Human Interest formula. The formula uses the percentages of personal words and personal sentences to determine human interest on a scale from 1 to 100. The most effective writing, wrote Flesch, includes both reading ease and human interest.

A number of other researchers have also investigated the characteristics of spoken language that benefit writing. They include:

  1. A sense of the immediacy of the audience and its needs and interests.
  2. A knowledge of the assumptions that are shared with the audience.
  3. Short sentences and simple syntax that do not require the audience to decode complex clauses.
  4. A personal, direct style that uses familiar language and examples.
  5. Clear connections between the elements of the text.
  6. Breaks that invite audience participation and interaction.

In writing, breaks can include questions, summaries, overviews, sidebars, headings, subtitles, numbered lists, captions, and illustrations. Breaks focus attention and keep the reader involved. They draw the readers into the text and give cues of how to fit new knowledge in with their existing knowledge.

Good writers often read their texts out loud or, better, ask someone else to read them out loud. For one thing, this forces writers to complete a "read-through" of the entire text, the first step in proofing documents. The ear can also spot problems that the eye cannot see.

Other benefits of reading aloud

In the 1980's educators in the U.S. began noticing that children were arriving at school without the skills in spoken language (both listening and speech) needed to learn reading and writing. Support for Head Start programs greatly increased. Families were encouraged to read aloud to their children. A flood of studies showed how teenagers and adults also benefit from reading out loud.


Never too early for reading: the ear is fully formed and functioning by the fifth month of pregnancy.

Most school districts now have programs for children with listening and speech problems. Besides that, reading aloud helps all students improve language skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students are never too old for reading aloud.

Groups such as Read Aloud America promote a lifelong love for reading and better school performance by getting families to read aloud. Participants report that 71% of children spend less time watching TV and 70% report better attitudes toward school.

Reading aloud also charges the brains of adults. Some experts recommended that adults read aloud 30 minutes a day. Reading advocate Steve Leveen claims that reading to one another can transform the lives of adults, improve their love life, and cement their relationships. Libraries such as the one in Morton Grove, Illinois, offer lists of books to read to adults.


Love on a leash: a devoted listener in a Knoxville program.
Animals, both domestic and wild, respond positively to human speech. Not only do people often read to their pets, but artists and writers claim they do their best work with their pets around..

Don't be surprised if you find dogs in libraries and schools these days. Dogs trained especially for listening have a remarkable effect on children with reading problems.

Many cities have programs featuring these attentive listeners. Reading to pets improves the language skills and self-confidence of children.

With the advent of radio, TV, and video, there is a much greater demand for script writers familiar with the qualities of spoken language. These new technologies have exploited the great efficiency of speech in communications. They also remind us of the importance of speech to the printed word.


Plain Language in the News

Report cards don't get A's: A Seattle blogger complains about the lack of readability and usefulness of report cards. This is a common complaint across the nation. Read more...
Readability of bone surgery Web sites : The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery reports that their medical Web sites are too difficult for average readers. Read more...
Business startups and language: This blog for startups talks about the need for simple English when addressing globalized markets. Read more...
The battle for plain English in municipal governments: The Local Government Association in the U.K. publishes a list of words that city councils should not use. Read more...
The epic poetry of business jargon: The Plain English Campaign's annual awards given for worst English. Read more...
Going forward, the battle is lost: A German newspaper complains about the overuse of "going forward." Read more...
Making sense of political speech: A new dictionary gives explanations of what politicians really mean. Read more...
South Africa's new National Credit Act: The new act has a valuable definition of just what constitutes plain language. Read more...
Plain language undignified for the Queen: Academics in the Netherlands fear plain language not always suitable. Read more...
A perfect storm of bad English: A Michigan university publishes a list of words and phrases that should be banned. Read more...
One in three adults in the Arab world illiterate: Three-quarters of the 100 million people unable to read or write in the 21 Arab countries are between 15 and 45 years old. Read more...
Commas and right to bear arms: Adam Freedman in the New York Times discusses the confusing commas in the Second Amendment. Read more...
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© 2008 William H. DuBay

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