Friday, April 08, 2011

Will the fog win?

kw: observations, reading, clarity of expression

I know I am in trouble when the opening pages of a book contain one to two paragraphs each. When a quick scan shows about one period per four lines, my unease deepens.

I am reading a book that the author clearly wishes to influence a wide and general audience. It is not to be. I did a Gunning Fog analysis, with scary results. For those who haven't heard of it, the Gunning Fog index is a rough measure of the level of education required to read a text without undue difficulty. Popular novels and popularizations of nonfiction subjects typically have a Fog Index around nine, making them accessible to high school freshmen, and easily readable by any high school graduate. Among popular magazines and periodicals, only Scientific American, with a Fog Index near twelve, aims at a better-educated audience. Here is how it is measured:
  • Pick a paragraph or two that take up half a page, more or less. This will be 100-300 words.
  • Count the words in each sentence, or each clause if they are separated by semicolons.
  • Calculate the average words per sentence (WpS) and hold the total words (W) for the moment.
  • Tally up the number of "hard" words (HW), which means words with three or more syllables, except those whose third syllable is -ing or -ed or a similar suffix, and except proper names.
  • Calculate the percent "hard" words (%HW) as 100(HW/W).
  • Add these two (WpS and %HW) and multiply by 0.4.
In one line, the formula is 0.4(WpS + 100HW/W).

I did so for four paragraphs of various sizes, ranging from 163 to 373 words. They produced Fog Indices of 20.0, 19.4, 16.0, and 19.0, with an overall average of 18.2. That means the easier portions of the book require a college degree, while only readers with a PhD-level education can readily comprehend most of the text. I have fourteen years of college education, and 14+12 = 26, so one would think a book like this would be easy for me to follow, but it is not. It takes work. Just by the way, the sentences range in length from twelve to 69 words, with an average of 33. Newspaper writing usually has average sentence length near twenty.

I may finish reading the book, and I may not. Either way, I'll post a review in another couple of days. In the meantime, I'll do my best to extract meaning from the author's text. I owe that much at least.

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