August 1, 2017

Have you ever seen a sentence written on the 50th grade level?

I have. Click to enlarge:



From "38 Years on Books: The Essential Michiko Kakutani Reader" in the NYT. That is, this passage is one of a handful of selections from book reviews that appeared over a 38-year period, written by Michiko Kakutani. These selections are offered as exemplifying "a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium."

I used Readable.io to do the calculation of the grade level. I think these estimations can be bogus. Long sentences can be great (especially if they're easily diagrammable). But I've never seen a sentence come anywhere near the 50th grade level. Can you even imagine 50 years of schooling? What crazy course of study is even imaginable? And yet, I'll bet there have been human individuals who have so fully embraced the notion of a career as a student that they could write a tome called "50 Years a Student." And if they did, what would Michiko Kakutani have said about it?

(By the way, for comparison, the previous paragraph is written at a 6th or 7th grade level. It also got a "A" for readability, though it recommended not using so many big words. Obviously, "diagrammable" is pushing the limits of readability, but Readable also underlined "especially" and "individuals.")

56 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

I don't mean to knock Kakutani. It's just that one sentence that drew me in and amused me. There's a lot of great stuff at that link. E.g.:

"“My Life” by Bill Clinton (2004)/The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull — the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history...."

Ann Althouse said...

I put "a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium" through the calculator and got an "E" grade and an admonishment to avoid clich├ęs. Ha ha. Yeah: "life of the mind," "crash course," "zeitgeist"...

Ignorance is Bliss said...

That sentence certainly could have been broken up into a couple without loosing its effect, but it was actually fairly readable for a sentence with that many clauses.

Either that or I'm capable of reading at a 50th grade level... yeah, lets go with that.

MadisonMan said...

That sentence cries out for an editor. Just because you *can* write a long convoluted sentence is no reason to do it.

Hagar said...

Diagramming senntences is an American thing.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Hagar said...

Diagramming senntences is an American thing.

So is spelling.

Laslo Spatula said...

I tried a representative line from my work "Humor Neutral: Post-Modernism, the Prisoner and the Construct of Culture".

"While some may be led to expect that this would make the inverse true -- that is, the Unfunny is now Funny -- that is not necessarily the case: the rehabilitation by society of the Unfunny is used sparingly, to negate the use of humor as a deconstructive tool in the wrong hands."

The results: 19.6 average, with a 24.3 on the Automated Readability Index.

Give me my Ph.D now.

I am Laslo.

gspencer said...

Okay, score this one. Now-repealed, section 341(e)(1) had been the longest sentence in the entire Internal Revenue Code, exceeding, by word count, the Gettysburg Address.

"For purposes of subsection (a)(1), a corporation shall not be considered to be a collapsible corporation with respect to any sale or exchange of stock of the corporation by a shareholder, if, at the time of such sale or exchange, the sum of - (A) the net unrealized appreciation in subsection (e) assets of the corporation (as defined in paragraph (5)(A)), plus (B) if the shareholder owns more than 5 percent in value of the outstanding stock of the corporation the net unrealized appreciation in assets of the corporation (other than assets described in subparagraph (A)) which would be subsection (e) assets under clauses (i) and (iii) of paragraph (5)(A) if the shareholder owned more than 20 percent in value of such stock, plus (C) if the shareholder owns more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock of the corporation and owns, or at any time during the preceding 3-year period owned, more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock of any other corporation more than 70 percent in value of the assets of which are, or were at any time during which such shareholder owned during such 3-year period more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock, assets similar or related in service or use to assets comprising more than 70 percent in value of the assets of the corporation, the net unrealized appreciation in assets of the corporation (other than assets described in subparagraph (A)) which would be subsection (e) assets under clauses (i) and (iii) of paragraph (5)(A) if the determination whether the property, in the hands of such shareholder, would be property gain from the sale or exchange of which would under any provision of this chapter be considered in whole or in part as ordinary income, were made - (i) by treating any sale or exchange by such shareholder of stock in such other corporation within the preceding 3-year period (but only if at the time of such sale or exchange the shareholder owned more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock in such other corporation) as a sale or exchange by such shareholder of his proportionate share of the assets of such other corporation, and (ii) by treating any liquidating sale or exchange of property by such other corporation within such 3-year period (but only if at the time of such sale or exchange the shareholder owned more than 20 percent in value of the outstanding stock in such other corporation) as a sale or exchange by such shareholder of his proportionate share of the property sold or exchanged, does not exceed an amount equal to 15 percent of the net worth of the corporation."

Henry said...

Can you even imagine 50 years of schooling?

Only in the school of life. I read at the 52nd grade level.

Hagar said...

My Omnikey/102 is 30 years old and the n-key is getting nervous in the service.

tcrosse said...

50 years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.

M Jordan said...

The algorithms for determining these so-called grade levels of readability are ridiculous. They are based on sentence length and word syllabication. They know nothing of thought complexity. John Steinbeck wrote at about a third grade level according to these formulas.

John Lynch said...

I understood the paragraph and I ain't been to school no fifty years.

Bob said...

"Give me my Ph.D now.
I am Laslo."

I bet pony-tail girl reads at the 50th grade level.

Expat(ish) said...

Take any Faulkner, chosen almost at random, like...
Caddy and I ran. We ran up the kitchen steps, onto the porch, and Caddy knelt down in the dark and held me… “I wont.” she said. “I wont anymore, ever. Benjy. Benjy.” Then she was crying, and I cried, and we held each other. “Hush.” she said. “Hush. I wont anymore.” So I hushed and Caddy got up and we went into the kitchen and turned the light on and Caddy took the kitchen soap and washed her mouth at the sink, hard. Caddy smelled like trees.
I kept a telling you to stay away from there, Luster said. They sat up in the swing, quick. Quentin had her hands on her hair. He had a red tie.


Readabilty: A
Grade Level: 2

Sorry, but Faulkner is magical, to Southerners at least, and isn't 2nd grade 'tall.

-XC

Angel-Dyne said...

Ignorance is Bliss: That sentence certainly could have been broken up into a couple without loosing its effect...

Why? Why? In the name of all that is holy, why have you done this thing, IiB? WHY?

Please tell me autocorrect stabbed you in the back as you innocently pressed "post".

Respectfully,
Cranky old person with a bug up her butt about a certain widespread orthographical error.

rhhardin said...

The grade level is the grade level it takes to read it, not the grade level it takes to write it. It's a measure of how badly you write.

Aim for around 9th or 10th grade. Trim. Recast.

rhhardin said...

Imus used to say he was 65 years old but read at a 67 year old level.

Amexpat said...

Fifty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the grave shift

rhhardin said...

Lower grade levels than 9th are okay but tend to be tedious to read.

rhhardin said...

Flights of starlings have a way of flying which is theirs alone and seems as governed by uniform and regular tactics as a disciplined regiment would be, obeying a single leader's voice with precision. The starlings obey the voice of instinct, and their instinct leads them to bunch into the centre of the squad, while the speed of their flight bears them constantly beyond it; so that this multitude of birds thus united by a common tendency towards the same magnetic point, unceasingly coming and going, circulating and crisscrossing in all directions, forms a sort of highly agitated whirlpool whose whole mass, without following a fixed course seems to have a general wheeling movement round itself resulting from the particular circulatory motions appropriate to each of its parts, and whose centre, perpetually tending to expand but continually compressed, pushed back by the contrary stress of the surrounding lines bearing upon it, is constantly denser than any of these lines, which are themselves the denser the nearer they are to the centre. Despite this strange way of swirling, the starlings cleave through the ambient air at no less rare a speed and each second make precious, appreciable headway towards the end of their hardships and the goal of their pilgrimage.

- Lautreamont

Fernandinande said...

rhhardin said...
Aim for around 9th or 10th grade. Trim. Recast.


Orwell came out as 3rd to 6th grade, so it's a silly metric.

JPS said...

I used to strive to write long, complicated sentences, thinking that this was the path to elegance. Then my favorite scientific style guide made this fine point:

"Jefferson's most famous sentence, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident...,' is 111 words long. In modern times, when most of us are in a hurry (and some may be speed readers), we cannot put up with too many 111-word sentences that begin with principles and end up overthrowing governments."

Long and complicated sentences have their place - I'm still a fan of Jefferson's - but I appreciate short and direct more than I used to.

Ken B said...

It's not elegant but it's an easily comprehended sentence, not that hard to read. The moral: software isn't perfect.

rhhardin said...

See Spot hurry.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Angel-Dyne said...

Why? Why? In the name of all that is holy, why have you done this thing, IiB? WHY?

It looked good at the time?

( There is a reason my nom de blog is 'Ignorance is Bliss' )

rhhardin said...

There's a probably tedious book of Dick and Jane grown up, after the divorce.

Henry said...

Jesus wept.

Very readable.

jwl said...

I think those are grades are out of hundred, not k-12 like in public school.

I remember learning about reading levels at university - newspapers were grade five or six - university level reading was impenetrable physics papers where the only words normal person would recognize were 'the', 'and' and a few others.

Bruce Hayden said...

I tend to write convoluted sentences, thanks to too many years of Latin (4 in HS, several more in college), followed by law school and then a career as a patent attorney. The Latin was bad, because the sentence structure became progressively convoluted as you progressed. As a result, you became, by necessity, an expert at outlining sentences, and, in the case of Latin, all of the dependent clauses, with dependent clauses, on occasion, having their own dependent clauses. That helped in the legal world, when having to decipher statutes and code like that one from the IRS above. But, then, I found that this sort of writing is indecipherable for much of the public. And, as a result, tend to write, edit, and rewrite, until I get something intelligible to the audience, if it is important enough (which, unfortunately, but realistically, does not include commenting here). I first started doing this (with a lot of help from my wife at the time) in the corporate internship program in law school. We would be tasked with writing something for business - for example, a memo. I would write, she would edit, I would write, until we got it easily readable. By the end of the term, I was doing it without her editing help. The result was my name on a plaque the wall for outstanding intern of the year. The problem remains though, that when you are capable of reading and writing convoluted legalese, it is often easier to write complexly, than simply. It takes work to clean it up. Often a lot of work. I do know that some of the other attorneys here don't seem to be afflicted by this malady, and tend to write far more clearly than I here.

Ann Althouse said...

rh: "The grade level is the grade level it takes to read it, not the grade level it takes to write it. It's a measure of how badly you write."

Of course, that's true. It's nothing to be proud of, writing on a high grade level.

There's almost never a good reason to write in a way that makes things harder to understand. I mean, sometimes it's worth it for comic pacing. Usually when I'm choosing to make something harder to understand, I'm writing shorter, not longer sentence. You have to stop and think to get it.

And that's something rh does all the time.

Hagar said...

Bruce, I think you are unclear on the concept. The obfuscation in government decrees and legal briefs (but I repeat myself) is intentional. It is a feature, not a bug.

Ann Althouse said...

I was thinking of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" when I chose "years of schooling," so ... thanks for noticing! I didn't have to spell it out.

tcrosse said...

I didn't have to spell it out.

Have faith in the material. Have faith in the audience.

Sebastian said...

@AA: “But I've never seen a sentence come anywhere near the 50th grade level.”

Really? We elite-but-not-elitist hillbillies encounter them all the time. Here’s one at F-K 235.1—whatever that means! (Longer= higher, I guess.) But LIX has Kikutani at 142 vs. Proust at 137.

I’ll spare you the French version, though it is much better. (Just to illustrate--blog readers with less than a 235 grade-level education may skip to the next comment.)

“But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold — or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam — or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling."

William said...

It's no great thing to write a long, grammatically correct sentence, but the trick is to write a long, grammatically correct sentence that is readily comprehensible. Give her credit for doing that. That takes some skill........German philosophers wrote long, dense sentences. You could spend forever trying to figure out what they meant. It was very dispiriting. Sometimes you never figured it out, but,what was worse, sometimes you puzzled out the meaning and the philosopher was saying something banal or stupid.. I'm sure that if Marx had written in an easy, relaxed style, no one would have believed that crap...... I rarely think complex thoughts. Most of my thoughts can be expressed in simple, declarative sentence or, on many occasions, grunts.

Steven said...

The system used obviously has its defects, especially in extreme cases. It's a quite basic algorithm incapable of exercising real judgment. Still, a useful tool . . . right up to the point where far too many people have mistaken a higher grade level as a good thing.

Kevin said...

Heidegger could hit 50th grade level easy. Maybe 75th grade level in the original German.

Ann Althouse said...

"Have faith in the material. Have faith in the audience."

I do, but it still feels great to see it reaffirmed.

Ann Althouse said...

"There's a probably tedious book of Dick and Jane grown up, after the divorce."

It's called "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes."

Sebastian said...

@William: "German philosophers wrote long, dense sentences. You could spend forever trying to figure out what they meant. It was very dispiriting." So unfair, at least to Marx. What could be more invigorating than some trenchant analysis of commodity fetishism? A sample comes in at only 86 on F-K!

"The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commodities, the specific social character of private labour carried
on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human
labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the
producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that,
after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered."

Anyway, Marx could write well when he tried.

MadisonMan said...

It's called "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes."

Required Reading for a Gender Studies 411 class. Only $199.95 at the Book Store. No Used Copies available, and no Kindle either. Written by the Professor, of course.

rhhardin said...

``Consign them here, but why I wonder, confide to the bottom of this book what were my mother's last more or less intelligible sentences, still alive at the moment I am writing this, but already incapable of memory, in any case of the memory of my name, a name become for her at the very least unpronounceable, and I am writing here at the moment when my mother no longer recognizes me, and at which, still capable of speaking or articulating, a little, she no longer calls me and for her and therefore for the rest of her life I no longer have a name, that's what's happening, and when she nonetheless seems to reply to me, she is presumably replying to someone who happens to be me without her knowing it, if knowing means anything here, therefore without my knowing henceforth any more clearly myself who will have asked her such and such a question like the other day in Nice when I asked her if she was in pain (``yes'') then where, it was February 5, 1989, she had, in a rhetoric that could never have been hers, the audacity of this stroke about which she will, alas, never know anything, no doubt knew nothing, and which piercing the night replies to my question : ``I have pain in my mother,'' as though she were speaking for me, both in my direction and in my place, although in the apparently amnesiac confusion in which she is ending her days the memory of her mother is very present to her, and although she looks more and more like her, I mean like my grandmother, a woman just as attentive to her appearance, her clothing, her makeup and her manners, then the evening of the same day, when she was alone with me in that house and I was in a different room, she had several times successively exposed herself naked in her bed, then as soon as I asked her why she replied to me, in just as improbable a way for anyone who had known her : ``Because I'm attractive,'' and because she no longer articulates very clearly, her refusal to keep false teeth in not helping matters, I wondered if I had heard aright, had she said ``Because I'm attractive,'' had she really, however true it might be, spoken such an improbable sentence, but instead of pursuing this story, I stop for a moment over this word ``improbable'' and over a pang of remorse, in any case over the admission I owe the reader, in truth that I owe my mother herself for the reader will have understood that I am writing for my mother,perhaps even for a dead woman and so many ancient or recent analogies will come to the reader's mind even if no, they don't hold, those analogies, none of them, for if I were writing here for my mother, it would be for a living mother who does not recognize her son, and I am paraphrasing here for whoever no longer recognizes me, unless it be so that one should no longer recognize me, another way of saying, another version, so that people think they finally recognize me, but what credulity, for here's the basis of the improbable, improbable is here below the name.''

Derrida, in a footnote to Jacques Derrida Geoffrey Bennington.

deepelemblues said...

So 50 years of schooling gives you the ability to write awful run-on sentences?

Luke Lea said...

Ann means a 6th or 7th grade prodigy I presume? The sentence perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the title and of the novel itself (two very different things as I recall) which no ordinary 6th or 7th grader could write.

Professional lady said...

I took a test of 15 questions on Facebook yesterday and was told I have an IQ of 150! Got them all right - I guessed at 2.

hstad said...

"...50 YEARS OF SCHOOLING....?" That is my definition of an ACADEMIC - can't accomplish anything in real life so he/she becomes a professional student - AKA - academic.

hombre said...

I'm excited to note that my penchant for long sentences may not be a bad thing. Is that right? LOL.

Robert Cook said...

I naturally tend to write long sentences with many clauses, but I learned in college how to write with efficient brevity, i.e., using the fewest words to convey the most information (Journalism School>Advertising Major, though I've never worked in journalism or advertising). As the man said, "Forgive me for writing such a long letter, but I did not have the time to write a shorter one," (or words to that effect). When I take the time and apply my attention, I can intersperse my longer sentences with shorter ones, or even write mostly short sentences. However, I don't think long sentences are intrinsically bad. (And I find short sentences following one after the other after the other to be staccato and unpleasing.) I've written here before of my liking for the challenging, lengthy, and convoluted sentences of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard.

The Godfather said...

Jefferson is not famous for his sentences. He is famous for his phrases.

Meade said...

I find I tend to skip over blog comments with more than 5 lines,
thinking I can
come
back to them
later.

Paddy O said...

50th? Amateur.
How about an 82nd grade level sentence?


From a book I had to review during my first quarter of PhD studies.

Here's the sentence (which I've been informed by several grammar experts that this is indeed grammatically correct, if needlessly complicated):

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.

Paddy O said...

Derrida, of course, is probably the king of crushingly complicated grammar. That's an amazing sentence, rhhardin. Someone needs to put that in the British Museum and invite tourists from all over to gaze at it in wonder at what English can do.

veni vidi vici said...

"I scored 50+ on the Flesh-Kinky test!"

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

If a writer does not argue his point in language that can be easily understood, then it is highly probable that he is trying to pull a fast one. If the writer is in the social sciences, then the probability that he is doing so approaches 1.