Readability reliability

Subject: Readability reliability
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Thu, 26 Jun 1997 16:21:26 -0500

"holly alton kim kellner", who has one of the more unusual
names to cross my desk in some time, wondered about the
usefulness of readability tests. I assume you mean
something like Fog indexes and their evil brethren?

My feeling, based purely on personal experience, anecdotal
evidence, and some half-remembered articles rather than on
rigorous research, is that there simply aren't any useful
readability indices. All the ones I'm familiar with use
sentence length and word length as the main basis for their
assessments, and this relies on the flawed logic that a
long sentence is harder than a short one, and long words
are more complex than short ones. Neither is necessarily
true: it's trivial to create long sentences with long words
that are easier to understand than some short sentences
with short words. For example, compare the previous
sentence with "The book writes well", which is gibberish,
even though it's short, grammatically sound, and uses short

The only good measure of readability that I'm aware of is
to ask actual members of your audience to read the words.
Then question them to determine whether they got the
message you intended them to get. If they did, your words
are readable; if not, it doesn't matter what the
readability index claims.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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