Most of the internet does not appeal to your intellect. Given that the “Cats scared of Cucumbers Compilation” video has over 9 million YouTube views while TED-Ed videos rarely hit the 500,000 mark, this is evident. Yet even if your internet searches are more high-brow than “17 hilarious animal fails,” media outlets like TED, The New York Times, CNN, and Wall Street Journal might not think much of your education or attention span.
All of these companies (along with twenty six percent of the entire internet) use the content management system WordPress, which has a handy feature called a Yoast SEO plugin that helps writers generate engaging content. (“Engaging,” in this sense, meaning something that readers won’t click away from.) Your writing gets a search engine optimization (SEO) score based on keywords and other factors. A high SEO score means that your “world’s best pumpkin oatmeal recipe” blog post will rank better in Google’s results when basic bitches type in “pumpkin oatmeal recipe.”
A subset of SEO is the text’s readability score, calculated using the Flesch Reading Ease test. Here, basic is better. Using fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word earns your text a higher score. For example: “Twenty words per sentence is too many. Words with more than two syllables are hard to understand. Cut out large or extra words.” This scores 81.6—easy to read.
The above passage will get the green light out of three options: green, orange and red. Red meaning fix it before you post it. The following would get a red light: “If a sentence has twenty words or more, and if the words have more than two syllables, it will be considered difficult to comprehend; removing superfluous words would be preferable.” Score of 55—considered too difficult for the average 13-15 year old.
WordPress’s preference for simple, plain language makes sense. The internet is all about efficiency. You don’t want people clicking away from your content because the language is too difficult to parse out. Plenty of potential readers might not have a college education, and hardly anyone has patience for Kantian-like prose. Logic says that you’ll have a wider audience if you appeal to the lowest common denominator—and the shortest attention span.
Furthermore, the Flesh Reading Ease test has a practical use. Some states require that legal documents such as automobile and life insurance policies be written at a 9th grade reading level or below. Clearly, people have been screwed over not just because they couldn’t see the fine print, but because they couldn’t understand it. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for this very reason. Banks, credit unions, and mortgage lenders make a fortune on people not understanding what/when/how they have to pay.
On the one hand, I think Elizabeth Warren is a goddess for this. On the other, I think (and I’d bet Ms. Warren would agree) that our country should do a better job of educating its people above a 9th grade reading level.
Yes, politicians. But, also, all of us. Twenty-six percent of the internet uses WordPress, if the W3Tech study is to be believed. That’s a huge number. If all of those sites aim for the green light on the Flesch test, they’re perpetuating our short attention spans and low reading levels. But if 26% percent of the internet, including some of the most widely read and (debatably) reputable news outlets didn’t rely on choppy sentences to hold our attention, maybe we could stick it out through 20+ words.
This dumbing down of language in our era is something that presidential campaign rhetoric analysts know well. Lincoln spoke at the 11th grade level, Clinton hovers around the 8th grade mark; Trump sits right below 6th, and Bush was very easily understood (and “misunderestimated”) by 5th graders.
For life insurance policies, yes, transparent English is essential. When relating heartwarming or wrenching human stories that transcend time, class, and race? When delivering a (hopefully inspiring) vision of how our country could and should be better? I believe that language should reflect our complex lives, our laborious inner dialogues. Syntax should unravel discoveries the way a scientist would a theory. Sentence length should swell and shrink to accommodate emotion pulsing at each punctuation mark. Where would the potency be if some politicians’ actions weren’t described as just. Plain. Horrifying?
I’m not talking about disguising articles as graduate dissertations or intentionally obfuscating meaning. But I will not condone chopping up well-composed sentences for the sake of a little green light: a high score that panders to our national attention deficit, rather than promoting our intellectual curiosity.
And if we grapple with language as we must sometimes with life, maybe we’ll be better equipped in the future to take on a phrase—a phase—that gives us trouble. Isn’t adversity the best teacher? Shouldn’t we better ourselves and do our part to educate others? Shouldn’t our nation’s leaders and its writers set an example with their actions and, yes, their words?
Do we want our kids to grow up to be the lowest common denominator?
Graph via Carnegie Mellon University.
Sleeping baby via jenmal37 on Photobucket.