Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Problem with the Flesch-Kincaid Test

I just read an article (an excerpt from Ben Blatt's book, Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve) lamenting the dumbing down of literature over the years.  

It used, as proof, the Flesch-Kincade Grade Level Test.  The author collected all the digitized versions of New York Times Bestsellers he could find, from 1960 to 2014.  Then he ran them through the Flesh-Kincaid test.  His results showed a consistent downward trend in reading level of our bestsellers, from an average 8th-grade reading level in the 1960s to an average 6th-grade reading level in the 2010s.  He used this to claim that books are getting simpler and "less wise," but I think that's vastly over-simplified.

Take a look at these three passages and tell me which one you think is hardest to read and which is easiest:

1) A hadron's "sea" quarks don't change its quantum numbers. 

2) Penelope's playmates—rhinoceros and hippopotamus—unfortunately received no invitations to the environmental education convention, so Penelope, extremely embarrassed, created handwritten invitations, decorated expensive envelopes, and personally delivered them to rhinoceros and hippopotamus. 

3)  Whence hails the scythe of angst? The id ebbs. Death trysts with aught. Wrest the mote from your eye. Sage and lithe, heed the cues. Ward off the murk and thrive.

Finished?  What did you think? Well, I'll tell you the results of the Flesh-Kincaid test. 

1) (The Hadron's quarks) Grade level:  3.3.  That's 3rd grade in the US system. 

2) (Penelope's playmates) Grade level:  29.9.  Yes, 29th grade.  Like…a second doctorate?

3) (Whence hails the scythe)  Grade level:  0.  Um…kindergarten?  

The Flesh-Kincade readability test (which the article didn't  use) is a little more moderate, but its lowest grade level seems to be 5th grade.  And you guessed it:  the opaque third passage should be comfortable reading for a 5th grader, according to this, and the one about quarks is perfect for 6th graders.  But don't let your kids get hold of the passage about Penelope's poor playmates.  It can only be read comfortably  by college graduates.


The problem with this test is that it uses exactly two factors:  sentence length and how many syllables in each word.  It doesn't account in any way for the difficulty or familiarity of the words themselves and certainly doesn't delve into the difficulty of the concepts behind it or the clarity of the writing.  While these examples are extreme, it does show the flaws of the test.

The truth is that sentences, over the years, have become shorter.  But I don't necessarily view this as bad or "dumbed-down" writing.  It's just a different style.  To me, one very important aspect of writing—non-fiction OR fiction—is clarity.  If you can convey complex ideas in a way that's easy to read, then I think that's better writing than conveying complex ideas in a way that's difficult to read.  Long, convoluted sentences are more challenging, and take greater attention spans and perhaps greater education, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily better.  A curvy road with random speed bumps and potholes is more difficult to drive than a straight, newly paved road.  But does that make the curvy road "better?"  To some people, yes, because straight roads bore them, so they like skirting the potholes and wrenching the steering wheel back and forth like a video game.  To others, it's not better, because they like getting to the destination and being able to enjoy the scenery as they go instead of concentrating so hard on the road.  Then there's the whole, "Don't use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do."  I'm not saying either way is good or bad.  But it's unfair to suggest that shorter sentences and shorter words mean the writing is less sophisticated.  It's just different.

As for the Flesh-Kincaid test, I think it's a good tool to evaluate whether your text might have too long of sentences for ease of reading, but beyond that, I don't think a whole lot of it.

By the way, the Flesh-Kincaid grade level of this post: 7.3.

The Flesh-Kincaid grade level of Shakespeare's Macbeth:  6.8. 

Seriously, if you're a Shakespeare afficionado, there's no way you'd consider this post more sophisticated than Macbeth, and if you're not a Shakespeare fan, there's no way you'd consider it more difficult.  Numbers, unfortunately, do sometimes lie. 

Read what you love and write what you love! 

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