Speaking Effectively Doesn’t Mean Using $10 Words – Despite What News Reports Might Say

The St. Louis Beacon reports on a recent ‘study’ claiming Congress had dropped a grade-level in the quality of its members’ speeches. Researchers used the Flesch-Kincaid scale to assign each member of Congress a grade level – and to rank the body as a whole. In the past seven years, the study ‘reveals’ Congress has dropped nearly a whole grade level. Some folks might point to this as evidence of Congress getting ‘dumber.’ NPR’s story on the study was titled, “Sophomoric? Members of Congress Talk Like 10th Graders, Analysis Shows.

Actually, the fact that Congressional speech has dropped a grade level is a good thing. In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Orwell was talking about the high-brow-better- than-thou-language for which detractors of simple speech must pine. Orwell believed politics in his time were corrupted by bad language. He wrote:

[T]he present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

In the end, the advice is simple. To convey ideas effectively, leave the $10 words for the stiff-suits at the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Instead follow the lead of Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and the Elements of Style.* Use simple, but active words. Keep your sentences short. Be direct.

*Flesch-Kincaid ‘reveals’ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written for sixth-graders, and the Gettysburg Address for ninth-graders.