March 2010 Archives

Communication occurs only if the audience understands the message in the way you, as the writer intended--but how can you tell if your reader is likely to understand? 

Gobbledygook and bafflegab abound in technical writing. As scientists, it's easy to think that the job of writing technically clear and easily understood prose isn't as important as possessing the know-how to get the job done. Yet scientists spend a lot of time communicating (some studies suggest that at least 30 percent of each day), and often have to write to a variety of audiences including other scientists, co-workers (some who may not have technical backgrounds), researchers, policy makers, and others.

Consider report writing. Your primary audience is often the managerial decision-makers, but you also must include the secondary audience of production personnel, and maybe even a tertiary audience of marketing employees. Outside of your organization, you may also be engaged in writing persuasive messages to gain support and funding for your work. It's easy to see how crucial the ability to write clearly and forcefully helps improve your productivity.

Because you're often faced with how to tailor a message to a specific audience without compromising the quality of the technical information, it would be nice to be able to gauge just how readable your document is. It's tough not to assume that your reader is as familiar as you are with your material.  So how do you measure how easy or difficult your message is to read? This is the purpose of scientific readability formulas.

And there are many! For example, there is the Dale-Chall, the New Dale-Chall, the Flesch-Kincaid, the SPACHE, and these are only a few. Some are available online for purchase and can be downloaded to your computer. Each is designed to analyze the words and sentences in your document and produce a readability score.
There's also an easy one that you don't have to purchase, can use easily, and provides you with a quick assessment of your document. It was designed by Robert Gunning, and is found in The Technique of Clear Writing.  It's often referred to as the Fog index. Here's how to calculate it:

The Gunning Fog Index (or FOG) Readability Formula

Step 1: Take a sample passage of at least 100-words and count the number of exact words and sentences.

Step 2: Divide the total number of words in the sample by the number of sentences to arrive at the Average Sentence Length (ASL).

Step 3: Count the number of words of three or more syllables that are NOT (i) proper nouns, (ii) combinations of easy words or hyphenated words, or (iii) two-syllable verbs made into three with -es and -ed endings.

Step 4: Divide this number by the number or words in the sample passage. For example, 25 long words divided by 100 words gives you 25 Percent Hard Words (PHW).

Step 5: Add the ASL from Step 2 and the PHW from Step 4.

Step 6: Multiply the result by 0.4.

The mathematical formula is:

Grade Level = 0.4 (ASL + PHW)


ASL = Average Sentence Length (i.e., number of words divided by the number of sentences)

PHW = Percentage of Hard Words

The FOG gives a snap-shot look at your document's readability. For general readership, and those who are not technically inclined, the ideal score for readability is a FOG of 7 or 8. (The numbers correspond to grade level; here, it refers to the seventh or eighth grade.) Anything above 12 is considered difficult for many people to read. For instance, academic papers average around 15-20; magazines, like Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal average around 11; and many small town newspapers average around 6 to 8.
The FOG reportedly has an 80 percent correct outcome. Yet many limitations to readability formulas exist, and human judgment should override simplistic views provided by flawed quantitative results. Shorter and simpler sentences, for instance, reduce the Fog index but may not actually make the document more understandable. If you compute the index and find an outcome incompatible with your intended audience, go back and review your word choice and sentence construction. However, be careful not to write just to the index. In other words, contemplate the delicate balance, and look for ways to revise toward a style that is more agreeable to your reader.

Of course, because you're scientist, after you revise it, you'll want to measure it again!
By the way, can you guess what the FOG is for this article?

(ANSWER: 9.0)

1. Gunning, Robert. 1968. The Technique of Clear Writing, pp.38-39. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Patrick Salmon 1.jpg

Usually I'm not so pleased to score a 62 on a quiz, but I took The Pew Research Center's quiz, "How Millennial Are You?" and feel pretty good about this number. Numbers are the lingua franca of the Center, and some of them about this generation are surprising. (The Center uses the following generational dividers: Silent Generation 1928-1945; Baby Boomer 1946-1964; Gen Xer 1965-1980; Millennial 1981 to current. They're honest to point out that these categories are mostly arbitrary, although they've gained some acceptance in our culture.)

One of the most surprising findings from gathering these numbers is that this is the most racially and ethnic diverse generation, and one-fourth of all Millennials are Hispanic. However, they're not immigrants. They're part of a 40 year-old immigration wave, and they're the children of immigrants. The Center points out that by the middle of the century, the U.S. will not be primarily white.

Another surprising finding is that despite a dismal economic climate, and having grown up during two wars, the Millennials are confident about their futures. When asked, "Do you currently have enough money to lead the life you want, or do you think eventually you will have enough money to?" 9 out of 10 say "yes." This is more optimistic than any other generation. Yet this generation has 37% unemployed or who are not in the work force--the most for this age group since 1972.

The Pew Institute also asks a battery of questions designed to gauge attitudes toward cultural, social, and family values. Millennials are similar to previous generations in ranking life priorities; parenthood, marriage, career success, helping others, and other categories had almost no variance from those who are 30+ years. However, there is a profound change in the behaviors associated with marriage and parenting. Only 21% are currently married--compare this to twice as many of their parents at this same time in their lives! In 2007, approximately 40% of all births were to single mothers. Clearly the linkages between marriage and parenthood are changing.

Strangely, the generation gap exists but isn't viewed as harshly by the Millennials. When asked the open-ended question, "Do you think your generation is unique and distinctive?" Millennials respond, "yes," and 24% mention technology as the reason. Technology has helped define this generation: specifically 75% have social networking connections. In essence, they feel different from other generations, but they don't judge previous generations harshly. When asked about work ethics, moral values, and respect for others, a majority say that the older generation is superior. They also report getting along well with their parents.

Finally, where are you likely to find a Millennial? This one should be easy! IN COLLEGE. The Pew Center cites census data to make the point that this is the generation on track to become the most educated generation of Americans. Numbers and statistics are telling, and they're often useful when writing, particularly in persuasive messages. What arguments do you think might be made with this information? Do you think they're accurate? To read and learn more, click here.

paris grammar.jpg

Today is National Grammar Day chosen because it is March 4. As Grammar Girl explains, "It's not only a date, it's an imperative: March forth on March 4 to speak well, write well, and help others do the same."

People don't seem to like grammar.  When I'm in a class and announce we're going to talk about grammar, I get the same reaction I'd get if I said we're going to eat slithery, slimy raw fish. No one wants to. Think about it. It probably doesn't help that our stereotypical grammarian is a pinched, prim, prudish, school-teacher type.

Perhaps grammar just needs some glitz, glamour, and sparkle, and who better to offer this than celebrities? Let's add voltage to the discussion of grammar for National Grammar Day and examine some of the grammar mistakes of the rich and famous. See if you can find the errors in these three examples?


Ø  Brittany Spears made this comment during an interview with Matt Lauer.

                 "Neither the tabloids nor motherhood have taken their toll on my good  


Neither and nor can be troublesome when it comes to agreement. If the subject is made up of both singular and plural words connected by neither...nor, the verb agrees with the nearer part of the subject. Brittany could rephrase this and say, "Neither motherhood nor the tabloids have taken their toll on my good spirits."

Ø  Which songs use the words lie and lay correctly?

Eric Clapton, "Lay Down Sally"

Bob Dylan, "Lay Lady Lay"

Bonnie Raitt singing, "Lay down with me, tell me no lies"

Snow Patrol singing, "Lie with me and just forget the world"


The problem with these two verbs is even though they have different meanings they look so much alike. The best way to select the correct one is the substitution method. Use Lay (principal parts: lay, laid, laid, laying) to mean "to put" or "to place." Use lie (principle parts: lie, lay, lain, lying) to mean "to rest, recline, or stay."  Snow Patrol is correct; the other three are not.

Ø  What's wrong with  Jessica Simpson's lyrics--grammatically speaking?

Between you and I,

And the starlight of the sky,

Nothin' and no one would ever know...


Nothin'  may get a "pass" because of poetic license, but "between you and I" is just wrong.  "I," "you," and "me" are all pronouns, and as such they stand in for nouns. Pronouns may stand in for the subject, in which case they are in the subjective case, or they may stand in for the object, in which case they are in the objective case. When a pronoun follows a preposition, it is always in the objective case. "Between," is  a preposition, so "between you and me" is always correct even if it is at the beginning of a sentence.


I'm sure there are a lot more examples of celebrities committing heinous grammar crimes. Heck, some might even be wearing them: check out Paris's shirt. Post your celebrity grammar errors. I've got to believe there are a lot of them!



Celebrity Grammar website

Grammar Girl website

Romantic Lyrics website


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