Plain Language
at Work Newsletter
  4 April 2008—Number 36  

Smart Language: Readers,  Readability, and the Grading of Text

Unlocking Language: The Classic Readability Studies

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The Legal Writer

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Clarity for Lawyers by Mark Adler

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Plain-language classics

The Legacy of Upton Sinclair

One of the most remarkable literary figures of the 20th century was American writer Upton Sinclair (1878-1968). He wrote over 90 books and was a tireless and effective campaigner for social justice.

He ran for public office several times. In 1934, he almost won the governorship of California, campaigning on a platform to End Poverty in California (EPIC). He lost by by only three percent.

The press, the movie studios, and other corporations threw everything they had at him, even using the newsreels. It was the first use of movies in a political campaign.

Upton Sinclair: an unflinching view of tough and turbulent times.

Sinclair wrote his novels of social protest at an easy 8th-grade level, enabling millions of readers throughout the world to enjoy them in many languages. His best works have never been out of print.

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The Jungle: a defining novel of the 20th century.

Powerful beginnings

Sinclair first came to prominence in 1906 with the publication of The Jungle, which had a startling effect on the country.

An exposè of the American meat-packing industry, it caused a national uproar. President Theodore Rooseveldt quoted from it and called Sinclair to Washington for a briefing.

Congress rushed through the Pure Food and Drug Act and the National Meat Inspection Act, both with consequences to this day. These acts were the first federal laws safeguarding food and would eventually give citizens the right to know what is in their food and how it is produced.

The California Oil Rush

The U.S. is the only country in which private citizens can own the minerals beneath their property. The discovery of oil by Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield in Los Angeles in 1893 created a real-estate feeding frenzy.

Hordes of developers and land speculators flooded the land. Neighbors fought over oil rights. Home owners gave up their gardens and yards to make room for drilling rigs, oil derricks, trucks, and tanks. The air was filled with the roar of machinery and the black smoke of gushers and fires. The oil rush not only changed the landscape of southern California. It also changed the course of nations.

Signal Hill, California, in 1923: a landscape changed by oil.
There Will Be Blood movie poster
Movie poster for There Will Be Blood. Loosely based on Sinclair's Oil!, it omits the social conflicts.

Sinclair's expansive 1927 epic, Oil! captured the tough and turbulent birth of the oil era we live in. It also gave us an unflinching view of life in Southern California and its bitter social and political conflicts.

The 550-page work focuses on J. Arnold "Bunny" Ross and his father, an independent oil developer (modeled after the real Edward Doheny). The young man's sympathies are with the oilworkers and their unions. The tensions between him and his father drive the story.

The novel follows Bunny and his friends from the oil fields of California through college, World War I, the U.S. intervention in the Russian Civil War, and the Teapot Dome scandal. The story is still fresh and engaging. It also includes best look we have into the mind of Edward Doheny.

While there has been no lack of writers and filmmakers to cover corruption and class struggles, Sinclair's novels crossed over into literary greatness. Along with the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Harper Lee, they show the enduring power of great fiction.

U.S. Government Web Sites

Still Too Difficult to Read

IN August of last year, Brown University released its 7th annual review of the efficiency of government Web sites in the U.S.

Authored by Darrell West, the report scores each site based on a range of features including online publications and services, foreign languages, translation services, disability access, privacy policies, e-mail addresses, comment forms, e-mail updates, PDA accessibility and readability.

The report showed that the average readability level of American state and federal websites is at the 11.6th grade, up from the 10.8th grade last year.

FDA Web Site Detail of the re-designed FDA site: at the 13th-grade level, it addresses the wrong audience.
Regarding these figures, the report states:
Both numbers are well above the comprehension of the typical American. Fifty-six percent of sites read at the 12th grade level, down from 64 percent last year. Only 18 percent fell at the eighth grade level or below, which is the reading level of half the American public, compared to 14 percent last year.

For the full report:

See Oregon's new plain-language Web site:

The FDA Web-Site Redesign

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently touted their redesigned Web site. See

The press release claimed that new design was the result of usability tests involving "188 consumers, health care professionals, and industry representatives and other audiences."

While the new design resulted in more structured content and a pleasing appearance, it fails to address readability. The Dale-Chall and Flesch-Kincaid formulas reported an average 13th-grade reading level for materials randomly selected from the FDA site.

While that level is appropriate for professionals, materials on the site designated as "Consumer Health Information" are also written at the 13th-grade level or higher. The style is often stilted and officious. Consider this introduction to a consumer-health page for menopause:

Working in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and other Department of Health and Human Services agencies, FDA has developed science-based informational materials on its latest guidance on menopausal hormone therapies (estrogens and estrogens with progestins), and is working closely with women's health organizations, community-based organizations, and other experts to get this information out to women and health-care providers.

One wonders for whom this paragraph (at the 32-grade of difficulty) was written. It contains a hodgepodge of vague information about possible therapies and the source of the material and its distribution. It ignores the needs of readers coming to the Web site looking for information.

Why not something like:

If you are looking for up-to-date information on menopause, you have come to the right place!

The FDA Kid's Page has some attractive and well-designed materials written at the 7th-grade level. The teen pages, however, are written at the 10th-to-13th grade level, too difficult for most adults and even more so for teens.

Web designers and consultants who fail to address the reading skills of their audience and the readability of their Web sites are wasting a great deal of their clients' money. Research has shown that even small improvements in matching the text with the audience produces great results over the long run.

Fifteen years in the making

New Zealand's Plain-Language Tax Bill

New Zealand 10-dollar bill
Saving $millions: the new easy tax law is a boon for both government and taxpayers of New Zealand.

IN October of 2007, the Parliament of New Zealand passed the Income Tax Act, a plain-language re-write of 3,000 pages of legislation.

The new law was an enormous accomplishment, representing 15 years of work. A small team of public and private sector drafters and analysts carried out the work, which was overseen by a panel of accountants and attorneys.

The new law has a 9th-grade reading level as measured by the Dale-Chall, Fog, and SMOG readability formulas. This jump in readability over time will bring great benefits to both the taxpayers and government of New Zealand.

In a statement welcoming the new law, a government press release stated:

The purpose of rewriting the Income Tax Act was to produce tax law that is clear, written in plain language and is structurally consistent. That makes it easier for users to find what they need, to understand it, and to apply it, which in turn helps them to comply with the law.

Where possible, the language of the law has been made more concise, legalese has been avoided, and archaic terms have been removed or replaced. For example, a 14-line sentence has been broken up into three easily understandable subsections, and terms like 'hereinbefore' and 'hereinafter' have been rightly culled or replaced with modern language.

For the full release:

For a copy of the New Zealand 2007 Income Tax Act:

Plain Language in the News

New Jersey Board of Education requires plain-language school budgets:

Bruce Baley's plain-language bill passes the U.S. House:

Jargon on campus:

Can You Read Me Now? New online guide for using readability formulas:

Do the readability formulas work?

The epidemic of medical jargon:,,2269627,00.html

Plain-talk mortgage disclosures proposed:,1,5470585.story

Simplicity--Survival tips for managers:

Read your way to better health:

The blooming of business jargon:

Struggling adolescent readers:

Impact-Information Plain Language Services
Readability Consulting
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For a free consultation, call today:
William H. DuBay
Impact Information
126 E. 18th Street #C204
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Phone: (949) 631-3309
© 2007 William H. DuBay

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