February 23, 2016

A sentence written at the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 43.7.

Encountered in reading I assigned:
For a century the States had submitted, with murmurs, to the commercial restrictions imposed by the parent State; and now, finding themselves in the unlimited possession of those powers over their own commerce, which they had so long been deprived of, and so earnestly coveted, that selfish principle which, well controlled, is so salutary, and which, unrestricted, is so unjust and tyrannical, guided by inexperience and jealousy, began to show itself in iniquitous laws and impolitic measures, from which grew up a conflict of commercial regulations, destructive to the harmony of the States, and fatal to their commercial interests abroad.
From the famous old case Gibbons v. Ogden (1824).

66 comments:

Nonapod said...

I read that using a Christopher Walken voice in my head.

Unknown said...

FK test in 1975. Test might be (probably is) updated, but I have no idea of reading levels in 1824 and strenuously object to a grading system assumed to be backward compatible.

rhhardin said...

That's just a faulty evaluation program. They don't know about punctuation.

Clayton Hennesey said...

I love the Flesch reading scales. Google loves them, too. They make everything easier to read. That provides a good user experience. That's why Google bases PageRank upon them. Now everyone's experience is good. No more bad, hard to read pages. Take that, Hegel.

Skeptical Voter said...

Were your students able to understand it? Or since it was at grade level 43.7, did you have to reach the age of 49.7 to comprehend it?

rhhardin said...

Things haven't been the same since Dick and Jane's divorce.

DavidD said...

I would move the "of" to the beginning of its prepositional phrase, though.

Original Mike said...

One of the responsibilities of the graduate students in my mentor's research group was to edit his writings. Brilliant man, but he had allergies, and one of them was to the period.

DavidD said...

...except that that messes up the phrase that follows.

May I just say that seeing prepositions at the end of a phrase is one of my pet peeves?

ddh said...

These days that sentence would be an entrant in the Bulwer Lytton contest.

Ken B said...

Perfectly comprehensible.

Henry said...

Short version: "States got sway. Trade got screwed."

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 119.2
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level -2.6

mccullough said...

They wanted their opinions to be impenetrable.

English isn't Latin.

Henry said...

I didn't know you could have a negative grade level.

Bryan Townsend said...

And people say that there is no decline in culture...

Qwerty Smith said...

Long but comprehensible. Compare with some other chief justices' commerce clause opinions, e.g., Taney or Rehnquist. I wish Thomas's concurrence had been the majority opinion in Lopez, if only because my students can understand it.

Paddy O said...

Literature from that era tends to be complex. Reading old sermons or other texts is always a boost for my literacy. The literate were very literate.

If given the choice, I'd still much rather read literature from that era than the intentionally obtuse writing that comes out of certain fields. Some PoMo philosophers and contemporary sociologists and Radical Orthodoxy theologians see writing as a power-play of its own, making themselves difficult to read as a goal. To show how smart they are, I guess. Reading this stuff sometimes brings insight but it's always a struggle.

Read a book called Beauty of the Infinite a number of years ago that exemplifies this. Here's an example. It's one sentence and has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 83.1:

For all his solicitude for noble values, Nietzsche may prove, in retrospect, to have been the greatest of bourgeois philosophers: the active and creative force of will he praised may be really a mythic aggrandizement of entrepreneurial ingenuity and initiative; talk of the will to power, however abstracted and universalized, may reflect only a metaphysical inflation of that concept of voluntaristic punctiliarity that defines the “subject” to which the market is hospitable; the notion of a contentless and spontaneous activity that must create values describes, in a somewhat impressionistic vein, the monadic consumer of the free market and the venture capitalist; to speak of the innocence of all becoming, the absence of good and evil from being, and a general preference for the distinction between god and bad as a purely evaluative judgment is perhaps to speak of the guiltless desire of the consumer, the relativity of want, and that perpetual transvaluation that is so elegantly and poignantly expressed on every price tag, every declaration of a commodity’s abstract value; a force that goes always to the limit of what it can do is perhaps at one with modern capitalism’s myth of limitless growth and unbounded trade.

Grammar experts I know have told me it's technically grammatically correct and yet still horrifying in terms of clarity.

Beach Brutus said...

Qwerty - a lot of Justice Thomas' concurrences should be law; Lopez for sure.

Original Mike said...

"I didn't know you could have a negative grade level."

Have you met garage?

Paddy O said...

"English isn't Latin."

It's not, but one is often influenced by what one reads. In this era, knowing Latin was a sign of education, and a lot of educated people read latin texts with fluency, so much so that the style shapes how they write in English.

I have friends who read a lot of German writing, and I can always tell when they've read too many Germans without other influences. They have a very distinct German academic style in their writing. I see this happening with me too on occasion. It's why it's good to have a diversity of reading genres and styles. Read too much of a type and become that type without meaning too. I suspect the best SC opinion writers have the most diverse reading lists.

traditionalguy said...

Just tell the students the case is about Intercourse between States. That should get them reading it.

I actually love that old prose style. I go two centuries back and understand it perfectly. I can't wait to read some exciting John Stewart Mill tonight.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

"This instrument contains an enumeration of powers expressly granted by the people to their government. It has been said that these powers ought to be construed strictly. But why ought they to be so construed? Is there one sentence in the Constitution which gives countenance to this rule?"

Henry said...

Comprehensible? Perhaps. It's also wordy, discursive, and larded with redundancies. What makes it comprehensible is the fact that most of the verbiage can be skipped without changing the meaning.

For a century the States had submitted, with murmurs, to the commercial restrictions imposed by the parent State.... [T]he unlimited possession of those powers over their own commerce ... began to show itself in ... a conflict of commercial regulations, destructive to the harmony of the States, and fatal to their commercial interests abroad.

JPS said...

DavidD, 11:12:

"May I just say that seeing prepositions at the end of a phrase is one of my pet peeves?"

Of course you may, but this is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.

ddh: I thought of Bulwer-Lytton too.

traditionalguy said...

That prose style is like dancing a Ballroom Waltz instead of a modern Salsa.

It sounded at first like a section of the Federalist by Hamilton that got the whole Written Constitution thing going.

Terry said...

I added a comma and the word 'tits' to the end of the sentence, and its Flesch-Kincaid grade level increased from 43.7 to 44.

Earnest Prole said...

Transcripts of popular nineteenth-century public events such as sermons and debates prove that ordinary people understood and appreciated this style of rhetoric. We’re simply no longer as smart as we once were.

JSD said...

Brevity is the soul of wit

Shakespeare – Hamlet circa 1600??

Donatello Nobody said...

It's also not even quite grammatically correct. The phrase beginning "finding themselves" needs to modify "the States". Instead, as the sentence is written, it modifies "that selfish principle". The principle (which is singular, not plural) wasn't the thing that was "finding themselves".

Sebastian said...

@Paddy O: "Grammar experts I know have told me it's technically grammatically correct and yet still horrifying in terms of clarity."

Wordy, yes, but not unclear, is it? All pretty clearly illustrating N-as-bourgeois, no?

Levi Starks said...

After reading it one time I will give my understanding of the meaning.
"The state is full of shit"

traditionalguy said...

Paddy's quote at 11:36 reads smooth and clear. But I se what the complaints must be. The reader has to keep in mind all the thoughts at once as they are modified and sub-modified. It is fun or not.

Fernandinande said...

Flesch Reading Ease score: -40.2 (text scale)
Flesch Reading Ease scored your text: impossible to comprehend.

jimbino said...

The piece lacks an "Absolutely!" or Obama's favorite "The problem is, is that...." Using dependent clauses and observing transitive/intransitive, indicative/subjunctive distinctions and other 7th-grade grammar rules will serve to render good literature inscrutable to modern careless Amerikan readers.

SOJO said...
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Terry said...

"Transcripts of popular nineteenth-century public events such as sermons and debates prove that ordinary people understood and appreciated this style of rhetoric. We’re simply no longer as smart as we once were."
Did they actually take verbatim transcripts? In American 19th century lit, I get the impression that it was expected that ordinary speech would be prettied up. When Twain and Harte wrote the words of common people, they signaled that they were using the vernacular.
I tried to read Walter Scott's 'Rob Roy.' I really did. He did the vernacular Scotch in a natural way, but the speech of his main characters was so stilted and unnatural that it was jarring.
"Silly, romping, incorrigible girl!" said I to myself, "on whom all good advice and delicacy are thrown away! I have been cheated by the simplicity of her manner, which I suppose she can assume just as she could a straw bonnet, were it the fashion, for the mere sake of celebrity. I suppose, notwithstanding the excellence of her understanding, the society of half a dozen of clowns to play at whisk and swabbers would give her more pleasure than if Ariosto himself were to awake from the dead."

Dan Hossley said...

It makes more sense the Roe v Wade.

Fernandinande said...

For a century the States had submitted,

There were states in 1724?

Earnest Prole said...

@ Terry: Yes, verbatim transcripts — google “Lincoln–Douglas Debates” for an example.

Paddy O said...

"All pretty clearly illustrating N-as-bourgeois, no?"

Well, illustrating. But still, for me, lacking clarity. One has to slow down and ingest the sentence, which takes additional work. Maybe I should say it's horrifying stylistically, as the style impedes the clarity, even as the author is making a strong point. And the book overall is like this, with a great argument but caught up in a stylistic pomposity.

surfed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
surfed said...

Sounds like any random passage from any Patrick O'Brian novel in the Master and Commander series - Probably the most erudite set of novels ever written. Try "Post Captain" Professor. it's as if Jane Austen's naval officer brothers penned a novel opposite the distaff side of the gender fence - in 1802 (though written in the early 70's). AND you get to meet Dianna de Villiers. Oh my. I named one of my sailboats after her.

Ann Althouse said...

"Were your students able to understand it? Or since it was at grade level 43.7, did you have to reach the age of 49.7 to comprehend it?"

Class hasn't started yet.

I think the trick to reading it is to read it slowly, thinking about each part and nailing it down as you go. Then read it again, putting it together, stopping and puzzling as necessary. Then read it a third time. I bet on the third time it will feel readable and you'll have some startling clarity.

I hate to think of someone getting a sentence like that on a time pressure test. It could torpedo your confidence.

But that's why it's good to have reading assignments where you have plenty of time for rereading: to build up confidence that you can read anything the Supreme Court has ever put in writing.

Gabriel said...

I like 18th-century English (the passage quoted would have seemed very old-fashioned in 1824, but a little wordy in 1754.)

One of my favorite quotes, about teaching: But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. It's from Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the topic is the emperor Commodus (the villian from Gladiator, kids):

"The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father's virtues. It has been objected to Marcus, that he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, and that he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic. Nothing, however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne, for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. The distasteful lesson of a grave philosopher was in a moment obliterated by the whispers of a profligate favourite, and Marcus himself blasted the fruits of this laboured education, by admitting his son, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, to a full participation of the Imperial power. He lived but four years afterwards; but he lived long enough to repent a rash measure, which raised the impetuous youth above the restraint of reason and authority."

FK grade level, 15.6

Ann Althouse said...

I love "submitted, with murmurs." Sounds exciting!

Gabriel said...

@Ernest Prole:Transcripts of popular nineteenth-century public events such as sermons and debates prove that ordinary people understood and appreciated this style of rhetoric.

Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" sold 120,000 copies in three months, and people who could not read crowded around someone who could and had it read TO them. Americans crowded the docks to get the next installment of a Dickens serial, and again people who could not read had it read to them.

Most students graduating college this year cannot read at that level. I found very few college students who could read and comprehend even their textbooks.

Gabriel said...

Look into volumes 5 and 6 of the MacGuffey readers. You will be amazed.

It is true that few people in the 19th century learned to read at that level--but not one of them who failed to reach that level graduated with a diploma, and that is all the difference between that day and this.

It's not that people got dumber, it's that we lowered the standards to the point of meaninglessness.

mikeski said...

Henry said...
I didn't know you could have a negative grade level.


The absence of negative scores would imply parental malpractice is expected 100% of the time.

If the simplest sentence is supposedly illegible to everyone before grade one, that means no one should be able to read a word in kindergarten, or before?

We may be moving in that direction, but I don't think we're there quite yet.

David said...

Pre-Hemmingway, who had an influence on writing beyond American fiction.

Freeman Hunt said...

So those ever-students who make it to the 44th grade are good for something.

Qwerty Smith said...

Dan Hossley said... It makes more sense [than] Roe v Wade.

While many of the justices have simply been bad writers, I am convinced that they are hardest to understand when they are trying to get away with nonsense. Marshall was a master at this. His opening moves in both Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland are a mess. Marshall uses bad organization and ambiguity the way squid use ink: to escape from trouble by banishing clarity.

Douglas, Blackmun, and Kennedy accomplish the same end by waxing philosophical.

The Godfather said...

It really isn't that hard to read and understand. The punctuation conventions are different from what we're used to: If you replace semi-colons with periods, or perhaps bullets, it would be entirely clear. I grant you: I'd rather read Scalia's opinion, were it available; I suppose he and Marshall are thrashing that out now.

gadfly said...

My Freshman English teacher would call these Flesch-Kincaid rated compositions "run-on sentences" - which were absolute no-nos.

Paddy's high-rated Flesch-Kincaid example leaves me in awe. Who would have thought it would involve a Hall of Fame Packer linebacker - sorry, or could the name simply have been misspelled?

ganderson said...

I have Honors level 10th graders (although in the debased language of our modern ed system Honors level is our SECOND highest) who had trouble with Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural.

MathMom said...

I have had fun putting the various presidential candidates' speeches through Readability-score.com.

Donald Trump's announcement speech has Fleischman-Kinkaid Reading Ease score of 83.6, but a Fleischman-Kinkaid Grade Level of 4.1.

By comparison, Cruz' speech got a Reading Ease score of 57.6, Grade Level 10. Rubio: Reading Ease 67.4, Grade Level 9.4.

This might explain why Trump is doing so well. He is easy to understand. Easy enough for 4th graders who vote.

PB said...

I think a measure of "grade level" should incorporate effectiveness of communication and not be based solely on sentence and vocabulary complexity. I find that sentence to be so convoluted as to be meaningless.

MathMom said...

Preamble to the Constitution, Reading Ease 3.2, Grade Level 26.2. People were smarter then, I think.

The Gettysburg Address was at Grade Level 10.9.

MaxedOutMama said...

I don't think that's so difficult to read. It is just a run-on sentence - at one time the style of the greatest English writers.

It is easy to understand what is being said.

Granted, it would not work on Twitter.

jaed said...

My Freshman English teacher would call these Flesch-Kincaid rated compositions "run-on sentences" - which were absolute no-nos.

Your Freshman English teacher may not have known what a run-on sentence is. It doesn't mean a long sentence, or a structurally complex sentence; it means a sentence which is actually two or more sentences butted together without benefit of appropriate punctuation that would give it structure.

"I'm not a robot, I am a human being." is a run-on sentence. "I'm not a robot; I'm a human being." isn't one.

Colons, semicolons, and conjunctions have syntactic meaning, and they make the difference between a compound sentence - which is correct - and a run-on sentence, which isn't. A lot of teachers will tell you to avoid compound and complex sentences, but this is because they tend to be confusing, not because they're formally incorrect.

Bob R said...

K-12: 12th grade
Yeah, you just have to stay in academia forever....
K-12: 12th grade
BS: 16th grade
Ph.D: 21st grade
Post Doc: 25th grade
Asst. Prof: 29th grade
Assoc. Prof: 35th grade
Prof. (so far): 53nd grade

I really think I would have understood this 10 years ago.

More to the point - the writing make sense if you take a bit of work to navigate how the multiple clauses are connected. I would not expect law students to have a difficult time with it, but I had to read it carefully and pay attention to get the meaning. I'm not going to bother to edit it, but I really think it would be easy to rewrite it at a 10th grade level with absolutely no loss of nuance. The concepts are pretty easy and they aren't related to one another in a complicated way.

I hope your students agree with me.

MaxedOutMama said...

Thomas Carlyle. For extreme reading difficulty. I believe he was admired for it:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1301/1301-h/1301-h.htm
How such Ideals do realise themselves; and grow, wondrously, from amid the incongruous ever-fluctuating chaos of the Actual: this is what World-History, if it teach any thing, has to teach us, How they grow; and, after long stormy growth, bloom out mature, supreme; then quickly (for the blossom is brief) fall into decay; sorrowfully dwindle; and crumble down, or rush down, noisily or noiselessly disappearing. The blossom is so brief; as of some centennial Cactus-flower, which after a century of waiting shines out for hours! Thus from the day when rough Clovis, in the Champ de Mars, in sight of his whole army, had to cleave retributively the head of that rough Frank, with sudden battleaxe, and the fierce words, "It was thus thou clavest the vase" (St. Remi's and mine) "at Soissons," forward to Louis the Grand and his L'Etat c'est moi, we count some twelve hundred years: and now this the very next Louis is dying, and so much dying with him!—Nay, thus too, if Catholicism, with and against Feudalism (but not against Nature and her bounty), gave us English a Shakspeare and Era of Shakspeare, and so produced a blossom of Catholicism—it was not till Catholicism itself, so far as Law could abolish it, had been abolished here.

But of those decadent ages in which no Ideal either grows or blossoms? When Belief and Loyalty have passed away, and only the cant and false echo of them remains; and all Solemnity has become Pageantry; and the Creed of persons in authority has become one of two things: an Imbecility or a Macchiavelism? Alas, of these ages World-History can take no notice; they have to become compressed more and more, and finally suppressed in the Annals of Mankind; blotted out as spurious,—which indeed they are. Hapless ages: wherein, if ever in any, it is an unhappiness to be born. To be born, and to learn only, by every tradition and example, that God's Universe is Belial's and a Lie; and 'the Supreme Quack' the hierarch of men! In which mournfulest faith, nevertheless, do we not see whole generations (two, and sometimes even three successively) live, what they call living; and vanish,—without chance of reappearance?

traditionalguy said...

Carlyle sure could write. He and J. S. Mill seemed to try and out write the other. IIR they were friends. They were the Mozarts of English prose style that influenced this Justice.

Rhythm and Balls said...

I'll remember that the next time you guys complain that my sentences are too long and complicated.

Robert Cook said...

The excess of commas is the primary stylistic hindrance to meaning in the sentence. Without them, one reads through without mentally pausing at each comma, allowing meaning to be easily comprehended. (Of course, a few of the commas should remain, as too few can also hinder comprehension.)

mikee said...

As a person trained from age 9 to age 16 by Roman Catholic nuns to diagram sentences, the cited example was to me an example of prose written with a lucidity rarely seen in these degenerate days.

mikee said...

And my entire 5th grade class had to not only memorize, but publicly declaim, the Gettysburg Address.