Consider the following two sentences:
- His intransigent opinion was sufficient to frustrate, regardless of formal mediation, all attempts at constructive discourse.
- He was so fixed in his views that you couldn’t have a good discussion even using a mediator.
Which one do you think would be accessible to the broadest audience? How old do you think you’d need to be to understand that first sentence? And the second?
I’m putting this to you, because it touches on something that I’m passionate about. Also something which poses problems when discussing language.
Before I go into the issue more, I’ll tell you a bit more about those examples:
- That second sentence could be understood by most 12 year olds. Even if they didn’t know what a mediator was they could probably get an idea from the context.
- The first sentence, in contrast, would be a struggle for many 18 year olds. Of those who did understand it, there’s a good chance they’d be divining the meaning of at least two or three words from context.
I can even verify this by running each sentence through an analysis of reading difficulty and reading age.
That a 12 year old can understand what we write is a good thing, because it means that everyone over that age will probably be okay. Including those who find reading a bit of a struggle.
This comes up a lot in my line of work, and yet the response I’ve come to expect from people when I say the above is “our audience isn’t stupid!”. Nor are most 12 year olds, but that seems to slip their mind.
Not knowing a word doesn’t make you stupid. Vocabulary is learnt. Which is why ‘reading age’ as a measure of how accessible a text is, is talked about in ‘years of education’. So a 12 year old is (roughly) in their 6th year of education.
Having said that, 6 years of education actually covers an awful lot of words, and enough grammar to figure out the odd unfamiliar one.
Take most fiction and run it through an analysis and it’ll come out as between grade 6 and grade 8. Best-sellers are typically grade 6, and that comes back to accessibility.
What disturbs me is the idea that intelligence is linked to both formal education and to language skills.
I guess that’s just because our culture links ‘not understanding’ to ‘stupid’. Ask anyone with a learning disability and they’ll tell you just how often they got told they were stupid before their problem was diagnosed.
What I find ironic is people with ‘big’ vocabularies feeling that they are talking down to others if they write simply when, in truth, a lot of their audience would thank them for something easy to read.
Don’t get me wrong though – I’m not saying ditch all long words or that clauses should be banished. I’m just saying that we need to understand our audience. Remember that they aren’t us. Or, if they are us, realise we probably won’t make the big bucks.
As for work environments, where clear communication should (I feel) be everyone’s goal, remember that simple language means reading takes less time, and that those who speak english as a second language benefit, as do many of those with reading difficulties.
There you go, that’s my not-so-tiny language rant!