And this is apparently a Bad Thing. Tamara Keith, "Sophomoric? Members Of Congress Talk Like 10th-Graders, Analysis Shows", NPR Morning Edition, 5/21/2012:
Every word members of Congress say on the floor of the House or Senate is documented in the Congressional Record. The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into a searchable database.
Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, took all those speeches and ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse.
"We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there's been a real drop-off in the last several years," he says.
In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it's 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores.
No. Really, no. David Haglund, "No, Members of Congress Don't "Talk Like 10th Graders", Slate 5/22/2012:
Yesterday, NPR's Morning Edition included a story which, online at least, ran under the headline, "Sophomoric? Members of Congress Talk Like 10th-Graders, Analysis Shows." "OMG," you probably said to yourself on seeing that headline, "they totes do that, because Congress is, like, such an idiot." Or, rather, you didn't say that, because you don't talk like a 10th-grader, and neither do members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The"analysis" cited in the NPR headline proves no such thing. It is merely 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. 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.
Chad Nilep, "Sophomoric application of readability tests", Society for Linguistic Anthropology, 5/21/2012:
According to NPR’s Tamara Keith, “In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores.”
Nonsense. The Flesch-Kinkaid Readability Test purports to be a test of readability, not speech style. Furthermore, although the grade-level score is intended to map reading-ease scores to US grade levels, both scores need to be taken with a proverbial grain of salt.
As Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar argued in 2008, Flesch-Kinkaid scores do not correlate significantly with listening comprehension, even for edited prose. Transcription of extemporaneous speech is likely even less well correlated, since things like corrections, false starts, and fillers do not appear in most written texts, and there is often no obvious and uncontroversial way to segment a spoken utterance into sentences. (Flesch-Kinkaid essentially measures the number of words per sentence, and the number of syllables per word. See below for an example of how arbitrary such measurements can be.)
The analysis behind all of this: Lee Drutman, "The changing complexity of congressional speech", Sunlight Foundation 5/21/2012.
Just to show that you can't win, and generally can't even get out of the game, please think back to the press coverage in June 2010 of an even sillier analysis of one of Barack Obama's speeches (covered by LL as "Language guru runs with the journalistic pack", 6/17/2010). Under the headline "Language guru: Obama speech too 'professorial' for his target audience", CNN told us that
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.
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.
The pattern is clear. Just take whatever preconception you've decided to reinforce (Congress is stupid and ignorant; President Obama is aloof and elite), and cite some Flesch-Kincaid numbers to make it scientific-y.
As for the Flesch-Kincaid test, I'll just note that not only doesn't it pay any attention to the structure or content of sentences, it doesn't even take any account of word frequency. It's just
0.39 * (Words/Sentences) + 11.8 * (Syllables/Words) – 15.59
That's it. The difference between a Flesch-Kincaid score of 11.5 and one of 10.6 might be 0.9/0.39 = 2.3 fewer average words per sentence, or 0.9/11.8 = 0.076 fewer average syllables per word, or a mixture of the two, say 1.15 fewer average words per sentence combined with 0.038 fewer average syllables per word.
As we've previously noted, there are some genuine long-term trends towards decreasing word length and (especially) decreasing sentence length. But it's not plausible that this represents a gradual infantilization of American prose style.