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Do politicians prefer plain speaking or high-falutin' language?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2012 - WASHINGTON – “If you can't explain it to a 6-year-old,” Albert Einstein once wrote, “you don't understand it yourself.”

Is that message from a great physicist also applicable to politicians? A new study says members of Congress are now speaking in the House and Senate at nearly a full grade level lower than they did seven years ago.

To be sure, the current (literally) sophomoric average on Capitol Hill – at the 10.6 grade level – is still above that of the average American, who reads somewhere between the 8th and 9th grade level. But some politicians’ speech patterns seem to be trending a bit lower.

For example, when President Barack Obama gave the Joplin High School commencement address Monday night, his “spirit of Joplin” speech scored between a 7th and 8th grade level under one “readability index.” The same index rates Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s speech at the high school event between the 6th and 7th grade level.

Using that same measure of readability, an op-ed about the Joplin tornado anniversary by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was written at a level between 11th and 12th grade. And Blunt, a former high school history teacher, was ranked in the Sunlight Foundation study as typically speaking in Congress at close to the 11th grade level.

As for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., her comments about Joplin to radio reporters this week scored at between the 9th and 10th grade level, and her overall Sunlight rating for congressional remarks was at about that grade range.

Is it a good idea for politicians to speak in terms understandable to grade schoolers when addressing high school seniors, most of whom will go on to college? Or, for that matter, does it make sense to use 12th grade language when talking to the general public?

“My working hypothesis is that speech that is written at a lower grade level will be understood by more people than speech written at a higher grade level,” said David C. Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Kimball and colleagues have used the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale to measure the language of ballot instructions, finding “evidence of fewer voter errors when ballots were well designed and written at a low grade level.”

(Kimball’s study on ballot design, with UMKC professor Martha Kropf, is here. Click to see examples of well- and poorly worded ballots.)

To be sure, social scientists say that all of the “readability” measures – including Flesch-Kincaid, the Gunning Fogg index, the Coleman-Liau index and the Automated Readability Index -- have flaws and limitations. But Kimball said in an email that the Flesch-Kincaid scale is often used “in part because it is available in software programs like Word.”

(In its analysis above of the Joplin-related speeches and op-eds, the Beacon used an online utility that gives grade-level readings of Flesch-Kincaid and other indices.)

The Sunlight study, written by political scientist Lee Drutman, also is based mainly on a Flesch-Kincaid index analysis – in this case, of Congressional Record remarks. A blogger for Slate was unimpressed, calling the analysis “the latest attention-grabbing use of the Flesch-Kincaid test, an enormously reductive little tool that measures two things: how long one's sentences are and how big the words are in those sentences.”

Slate continued: “The results of that test are then rather brilliantly assigned a ‘grade-level,’ giving headline-writers everywhere a faux-scientific excuse to call politicians stupid.”

Is plain speaking a bad thing?

But then again, is plain speaking necessarily stupid speaking? It is true that President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was assessed at an 11th grade level, but Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was spoken at the 9th grade level.

President Harry S Truman, famous for plain speaking, also tended to express himself in simple language. His 1951 speech explaining his dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur from the Korea War command gets a score between the 8th and 9th grade. Mark Twain tended to clock in at the 9th grade level, Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is at the 6th grade level. Major newspapers tend to be written at least at the 11th grade – and sometimes as high as the 14th grade – level.

In an analysis earlier this year, a University of Minnesota website found that Obama’s State of the Union address in January was measured at about the 8th grade level for the third straight year – as opposed to the historical average for State of the Union speeches at between the 10th and 11th grade levels.

(Click here for comparisons of the complexity level of State of the Union speeches and those of well-known texts.)

Political scientist Drutman says the Sunlight analysis of congressional speeches found that:

  • The most moderate members of both parties tend to speak at higher grade levels while the most extreme members speak at lower grade levels.
  • Since 2005, Democrats on average have overtaken Republicans as speaking at slightly higher grade levels.
  • Some decline in average grade level since then seems to result from junior lawmakers speaking in simpler terms than senior members. But there also seems to be a trend of senior lawmakers simplifying their speech patterns.

In Missouri’s congressional delegation, two of the most conservative House members tend to be the plainest speakers, with U.S. Reps. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, and Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrison, ranking as the 6th and 7th “lowest” grade levels, respectively, among the 530 members of Congress in the database.

But a spokesman explained that Akin, whose Congressional Record comments were rated at slightly over the 8th grade level, prides himself on the clarity of his remarks. “It is clear for those who have any dealings with the congressman that he speaks in a compelling, sincere and intelligent fashion,” said the spokesman, Steve Taylor. He said Akin “often opts to speak extemporaneously and without written aids, which I believe speaks again to his sincere and affable manner of address.”

The conservative/liberal analogy is jumbled when looking at the scores of other members of the state’s delegation. Another mostly conservative Missourian, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, is ranked as the state’s highest-level speaker, at a 13th grade level (ranked 501 out of 530). Also speaking at a relatively educated level are conservative U.S. Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth (between 11th and 12th grade) and more moderate Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau (12th grade). Trained auctioneer U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, was nearly at the 10th grade level.

On the liberal end of the political spectrum, local Democrats are all at about the 12th grade level, including U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay (12th grade) and Russ Carnahan (grade 12.6), both D-St. Louis; and Jerry Costello (12th), D-Belleville. U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, was rated at the 10th grade level. In the Sunlight analysis, the average congressional score was between the 10th and 11th grade.

Among Missouri and Illinois senators, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., was scored at the highest level, between 12th and 13th grade. Blunt was second at grade 10.8; followed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at grade 10.3 and McCaskill at grade 9.6.

Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, stands out in the analysis for his use of what the authors call “top SAT words” – the sometimes difficult words that show up on college-entrance tests. The analysis found that Durbin used 26 different top SAT words, and a total of 122, ranking a close second to Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt. Both are high-ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Durbin also is a Senate leader in using a particular SAT word, “enhance” – although the 11 times he used that word ranks far behind Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s record 142 uses of the word “compromise” – the SAT word most often used in Congress, at 1,820 times. The other top SAT words used in Capitol Hill speeches were: prosperity (923 times), integrity (883 times), and exemplary (582).

Does using words like “exemplary” and “integrity” enhance the effectiveness of a speech? Some critics, questioning Einstein’s plea for simplicity, argue that not all concepts can be accurately described in simple terms.

As Groucho Marx once quipped about a puzzling text: “A child of 5 would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of 5.”

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