No, Members of Congress Don't "Talk Like 10th Graders"

Brow Beat
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May 22 2012 12:47 PM

No, Members of Congress Don't "Talk Like 10th Graders"

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The U.S. Congress gathered in a joint session for President Obama's State of the Union address in January

Photo by MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

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."

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

"OMG," you probably said to yourself on seeing that headline, "they totes do that, because Congress is, like, such an idiot."

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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. Back in January, conservatives seized upon the test in order to declare that President Obama's State of the Union speeches were at an 8th-grade level, the "lowest grade average," supposedly, of any modern president.

But consider the data. The NPR story includes this sentence from Dan Lungren, a Republican Representative from California:

This Justice Department, in my judgment, based on the experience I've had here in this Congress, 18 years, my years as the chief legal officer of the state of California and 35 or 40 years as a practicing attorney tells me that this administration has fundamentally failed in its obligation to attempt to faithfully carry out the laws of the United States.

Lungren's grade level during this session, we are  told after hearing this sentence, is 20. Now, maybe I didn't go to school long enough, because I have no idea when one gets to the 20th grade. But I'm pretty sure that Lungren's sentence does not betray any particular linguistic sophistication. It's just a run-on, of the sort one often falls into when speaking, rather than writing. (If you look at it carefully, you'll see it doesn't even quite parse. What is the subject of the verb "tells"? "My years," I guess? But then what grammatical role does "This Justice Department" play?)

Lungren's speech is then contrasted with these remarks from Georgia Republican Rob Woodall:

What do they say about socialism, Mr. Speaker? It's a great plan until you run out of other people's money. Guess what? We've run out of other people's money. I just want to show you a chart.

Woodall, we're told, speaks at an 8th-grade level. And, granted, someone who thinks that this administration has made the U.S. a socialist nation may seem to you an 8th-grade-level thinker. But those are good, solid sentences, far better than those of the 20th-grader, Representative Lungren.

And isn't that interesting, that this NPR piece chose a comment about the U.S. becoming socialist in order to illustrate "lower grade-level" speaking? Recall that the higher grade level was demonstrated with a remark about the administration not faithfully carrying out the laws of the United States. Since Flesch-Kincaid tests don't consider the content of sentences at all, it's probably just a coincidence that these were the two sets of comments the reporter chose. We shouldn't just assume the reporter was playing on the political leanings of her likely listeners with these choices. Then again, here's where the report goes next:

Woodall is part of the large freshman class that came into Congress in 2010—many of them backed by the Tea Party movement. Sunlight's Drutman says this infusion of new members looks to be part of the reason for the overall grade-level decline.
"Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down, and that pattern is particularly pronounced on the right," he says.

I take that back. This simplistic test that really doesn't measure grade level at all is pretty clearly being used to impugn the intelligence of politicians who are not, it's safe to say, part of NPR's target audience.

By the way, Drutman is Lee Drutman, a political scientist—not, in case you were wondering, a linguist or professor of composition or rhetoric. The Sunlight Foundation is devoted to government transparency. They want people in the government to be open and frank about what they're doing. Except when they're talking about it, apparently.

The sad thing (or one of the sad things, at least) about all this is that Rudolf Flesch, the man who invented the Flesch-Kincaid test, was an advocate of speaking and writing plainly and simply. His books include The Art of Plain Talk and The Art of Readable Writing.

If Flesch, who died in 1986, were alive today, he would, one imagines, praise the communication skills of these Tea Party-backed Congress members (or some of them, anyway). Indeed, their apparent ability to speak clearly might raise some interesting questions. Are these new members of Congress smarter about the use of language than their opponents are? Does this have anything to do with their success in getting to Congress in the first place?

I'd be curious to hear some reporting on that subject. But then, the headline for that piece wouldn't be able to call the U.S. Congress—one of the least popular institutions in the land, these days—"sophomoric."

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