[Update 6/20/2010 — The linked CNN story has been extensively modified, for the better. The headline is now "Language mavens exchange words over Obama's Oval Office speech," and the article now highlights Ron Yaros along with Payack, and incorporates some information from this post. Fev at headsuptheblog has some before-and-after analysis.]
It's amazing what a grip Received Perceptions have on what passes for journalism these days. Today, CNN enlisted Paul Payack to lead us through an unusually contentless version of one of the standard categories of Obama criticism ("Language guru: Obama speech too 'professorial' for his target audience", 6/17/2010):
President Obama's speech on the gulf oil disaster may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday.
How can we tell? Well, for a start,
Tuesday night's speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.
Wait, what? Text at a ninth-grade reading level is too professorial for the American people to understand? When it's read out loud to them? Color me skeptical. But wait, there's more…
Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," Payack said.
Oh, OK, that's all right then. And Mr. Payack's numbers are right on the money here, I checked. By my count, Obama's speech had 2,668 words in 135 sentences, for an average of 19.76 words per sentence.
I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster. Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!
[Someone at CNN crafted this little bubble of nonsense based on Payack's original analysis here, which pushes the same empirically-empty pack-journalism meme ("Obama Oil Spill Speech Echoes Elite, Aloof Ethos"), but is slightly less contentless, in the sense that it presents a larger number of mostly-meaningless numbers.
A sample of previous LL Payackology: "There will be passives", 11/7/2008; "The million word hoax rolls along", 1/3/2009; "Forbes on neologisms, and the return of the million-word bait-and-switch", 4/23/2009; "The millionth word in English could be 'sucker'", 5/12/2009; "End times at hand", 6/6/2009.
And some may be amused to compare the current ("aloof, elite") meme about presidential language with the equally overblown "bushisms" meme that Jacob Weisberg milked for eight long years…]
[Update — R.L.G. at The Economist's Johnson blog got to this before I did, contributing a well-phrased debunking of the "grade level" calculation as
a mindless bit of math that takes average word-length and sentence-length and assigns it a misleading equivalent in high-school or university reading levels. It takes no account of the skill with which words are chosen and sentences constructed, nor (in an orally delivered speech) how well or ploddingly it is delivered.
as well as continuing the reductio ad absurdum of this mis-analysis:
Microsoft Word can calculate the "Flesch-Kincaid" reading level for any bit of text. It tells me that the Gettysburg Address is on a 10.9 reading level, and the first section of Winston Churchill's storied "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech rates a downright incomprehensible 12.6. Yet of course neither speech is called "professorial". It seems that for the gullible reporters at CNN passing along Mr Payack's "analysis", confirmation bias is alive and well.