Readability question? (take II)

Subject: Readability question? (take II)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Milan Davidovic <shl_ctf -at- yahoo -dot- ca>
Date: Thu, 04 Jan 2007 17:45:11 -0500

Milan Davidovic responded to my cavalier dismissal of readability formulas: <<I've seen no readability formula that claimed to work on gibberish, nor worked with any technical writer who produced gibberish. I therefore wouldn't trust such a test anymore than I'd try judging the quality of a baseball bat by playing golf with it.>>

And that's precisely the problem: asking a readability formula to tell us whether text is readable is no more logical than playing golf with a baseball bat. The tool is not designed to perform this function.

More to the point, the formulas ignore factors that are demonstrably far more important than anything the formulas measure: familiarity of the words to the audience, grammar, correct punctuation, completeness, logic, precision of word use and description, and correctness. If any of these factors is inadequate, then it doesn't matter whether the readability formula suggests a Grade 1 level or a Grade 100 level.

<<The thing to look at is the definition of readability inherent in the formula. What factors does it take into consideration, and what does it leave out? You then have to decide whether the formula does the job for your texts and context.>>

All commonly used readability formulas that I'm familiar with are based on various mechanical calculations of things like word length and sentence length. For these parameters to be meaningful, you must prove that two separate assertions are reasonable: that longer words are always more difficult to understand than shorter words, and that longer sentences are always harder to understand than shorter sentences.

Neither statement is defensible, even if you replace "always" with "most of the time" or even with "more than half of the time". The difficulty of a word depends only on whether the word is familiar to the reader and whether it's the right word for the job. The difficulty of a sentence depends primarily one how well the clauses are arranged to support each other and on the other factors listed above; length is not relevant if the sentence is well constructed.

If both premises behind the formula are incorrect, then the formula can only be correct by random chance, not by design. Q.E.D.: useless!

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

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Re: Readability question?: From: Milan Davidovic

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