Obama Might Write For 8th Graders, But He Doesn’t Write Like Them

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 25 2012 5:42 PM

Obama Might Write For 8th Graders, But He Doesn’t Write Like Them

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President Obama delivers his State of the Union address.

Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

An article on the State of the Union address from the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog has been making the rounds today, arguing that “for the third straight Address, the President's speech was written at an eighth-grade level.” Picking up on Smart Politics’ analysis, Politico noted that “President Obama's three addresses have the lowest grade average of any modern president,”while Fox News emphasized the theme with the headline “Obama’s SOTU Written At 8th Grade Level For Third Straight Year.” The article included a picture of a child in a dunce cap.

What does all this mean? First, it does not mean that President Obama writes like an 8th grader. While these stories repeatedly note the president’s “low scores” and “low grade levels” according to the Flesch-Kincaid test, this only means that his State of the Union speeches score high in comprehensibility. According to the test, they are easier to understand. (In fact, there’s a nearly identical test called the Flesch Reading Ease test, in which high comprehensibility correlates with high number scores, but Smart Politics chose not to use this test.)

How does the test work? Well, it’s not very complicated. The Flesch-Kincaid test only measures the average sentence length (it counts the number of words in each sentence) and the average size of each word (it counts the number of syllables in each word). It uses these numbers to approximate how easy a text is to understand. A score of 8 indicates that a text should be easy to understand for an 8th grader, a score of 6 should be easy to understand for a 6th grader, and so on. (Calculating a Flesch-Kincaid score requires a comprehension of arithmetic below the 8th grade level.)

If that wasn’t clear, let’s take an example. Wikipedia points out that the sentence “The Australian platypus is seemingly a hybrid of a mammal and reptilian creature” is a 13.1, as it has 26 syllables and 13 words. If we tighten the sentence, so that it’s “The Australian platypus seems a hybrid of a mammal and a reptile,” it scores an 8.8 (meaning that it was “written at the 8th grade level”). Which is the better sentence? The same analysis suggests that the first paragraph of The Sun Also Rises was written at the 7th grade level.

The author of the Smart Politics post, Eric Ostermeier, argues that his calculations show that the speeches of our last few presidents—Reagan, Bushes I and II, Clinton— “have been written more and more simplistically” (his emphasis), with Obama’s speeches the most “simplistic” of all. Putting aside the accuracy of the test for a moment, what it really suggests is that they’ve been written more simply. One of Strunk & White’s elementary rules of composition is to “omit needless words”; similarly, one of George Orwell’s six rules in “Politics and the English Language” is to “never use a long word where a short one will do.” (Orwell also agrees with Strunk & White that “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”).

If we can take anything from this test—which is pretty simplistic itself—it’s that Obama spoke pretty clearly. And if Obama is one of many recent American presidents to express himself more clearly, why is that a bad thing?

(Full disclosure: The Flesch-Kincaid test indicates that this article was written at the 10th-grade level. But I wouldn’t read too much into that.)

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.