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The Middle East

The next step: new constitutions

Egypt protesters packing up
Cairo protesters packing up: now comes the hard part.

While the conflicts in the Middle East now dominate the news, the next stage will be equally important: the writing of new constitutions. Some, like Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Tunisia, already have democratic constitutions that require little change. Libya, however, largely tribal and on the brink of civil war, does not have a constitution. That country will have to start from scratch.

In any case, the writing of a constitution is a critical step. If it fails, as it often has, it can lead to further conflict and war. It not only sets up the rules by which people want to govern themselves and defines their principle beliefs. It is also a process for resolving conficts between parties, interest groups, and other stakeholders.

Princeton University has a remarkable Website, Constitution Writing and Conflict Resolution. It features 190 new constitutions created since 1975 with many stories about the ways in which constitutions can succeed or fail.

If successful, a new constitution can be an occasion of great hope and renewal for a nation, the point at which the people and the government are one. The problem is keeping them like that, or as Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, "shaping the nation to fit the government."

Good advice from Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp: a voice for non-violence.
Gene Sharp: American toppler of autocrats.

During the mostly non-violent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the media were fond of pointing out the influence of an American writer, Gene Sharp. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times paid tribute to Sharp's 94-page book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, available on his Website.

Based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, the book has been translated into 24 languages. It not only serves as a guide for toppling autocrats world-wide but also has some practical advice for setting up new governments. The Times gave several quotes, including the following:

"Preparing a new constitution will take considerable time and thought. Popular participation in this process is desirable and required for ratification of a new text or amendments.

"One should be very cautious about including in the constitution promises that later might prove impossible to implement or provisions that would require a highly centralized government, for both can facilitate a new dictatorship.

"The wording of the constitution should be easily understood by the majority of the population. A constitution should not be so complex or ambiguous that only lawyers or other elites can claim to understand it...

"The fall of one regime does not bring in a utopia. Rather it opens the way for hard work and long efforts to build more just social, economic and political relationships."

George Kingsley Zipf

The principle of least effort

Picture George Kingsley Zipf
Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf (1902-1950)

The over-ruling requirement of plain language comes from the fact that people (and the whole animal kingdom) are inherently lazy. They want to find the easiest, most efficient way of doing things. It is all about conserving precious energy.

In 1949, George Kingsley Zipf of Harvard University published Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology.

It has proved to be a very useful work. Zipf's Law explains not only language, but also properties of the Internet, distribution of income within nations, and many other collections of data. For example, the rank vs distribution of individual incomes in a country approximates this law. Breaks in this normal distribution create pressure for change, even revolution.

Picture Zipf chart
A typical Zipf-law rank distribution. The y-axis represents occurrence frequency, and the x-axis represents rank (highest at the left).

Word frequency and reading ease

Zipf's Law reveals fascinating things about language. For one thing, there is an exponential relationship between hard and easy words in a text. A word's frequency is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.

Easy writing makes for difficult reading

Zipf's work showed that the reader's interest is often in conflict the writer's. The reader wants the easiest way of reading, while the writer wants the easiest way of writing. Making reading easy always makes for hard writing. Good writing is always difficult to learn.

Good writers put themselves in the shoes of their readers. They learn to adapt their writing to the interests, expectations, and needs of their audience. This means close attention to the readers' reading skills and habits as well as their interests and concerns.

Using word-frequency lists

We have known for a long time that a word's frequency of use is a good indication of its readability. While only a few words are used very often, many or most are used rarely. Twenty-five percent of English words consist in ten words: the, I, and, to, was, my, in, of, a, and it. The first 100 most frequent words make up almost half of all written material. The first 300 words make up about 65 percent of it.

Writers of textbooks and all other forms of instruction should draw on the vocabulary that readers use most frequently. Along with readability formulas, word-ranking and frequency lists are useful tools for reaching your audience.

For nearly every language, you can find lists of words ranked by frequency. These lists are usually based on the countings of all the words in a large body of literature called a "corpus." These ranking lists are a great help in writing plain language.

Here is a listing by Zipf-rank of almost 99,000 English words: http://www.opfine.com/zipf.txt

Here is an alphabetical listing of almost 19,000 French words with their frequency: http://www.lexique.org/listes/liste_mots.txt

There are other Websites that feature the frequency lists of words in many languages, including:

A word-depth analyzer

To assess the frequency of words in your own text:

  1. Go to this page: http://1.1o1.in/en/webtools/semantic-depth
  2. Click on This gadget,
  3. Paste your text in the page,
  4. Enter the code confirmation, and
  5. Click on Analyze,

It analyzes the text you paste in to give you a frequency ranking of words in your text and the percentage of unique words (words only used once). The higher the percentage, the greater the vocabulary richness and the burden you put on readers.

Unique words make up 41 percent of this newsletter.


Plain language in the news

Immigrants and drug labeling: http://tinyurl.com/2boc6qe

How to name your business: http://tinyurl.com/2342gt7

Simple language for assent forms: http://tinyurl.com/4wdrl6y

Readability of Obama's State of the Union speech: http://tinyurl.com/67r3xra

New standards for drug labels: http://tinyurl.com/4uwfogb

The gobbledygook of business journalism: http://tinyurl.com/4juvfhg

Police use of gobbledygook: http://tinyurl.com/47xsb24

Worst examples of bad English: http://tinyurl.com/6xa6ch5

17,000 complain about city-council gobbledygook: http://tinyurl.com/46ampan

Illiteracy in the United States: http://tinyurl.com/4g3mcr4

Understanding your insurance policy: http://tinyurl.com/46ypur7