Re: Measuring readability

Subject: Re: Measuring readability
From: Michael Lewis <lewism -at- BRANDLE -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Fri, 3 Apr 1998 22:39:15 +1000

Mary Durlak hit the nail fairly squarely on the head. Readability in
technical docs is not just a matter of word length and sentence length
(though they do matter). More critical are issues of syntactic
complexity and role-specific vocabulary.

I have argued elsewhere that sentence complexity has to be measured in
terms of "depth" (hierarchical levels, or levels of constituency) and
"width" (amount of text at any one level). I've found (though my
research hasn't been very rigorous) that shallow, wide sentences are
harder to handle than deep, narrow ones, at similar word count.

But we also need to remember that technical terminology is shorthand. A
few technical terms can reduce word count dramatically; the effect on
readability is to improve it for the expert (or even someone with
reasonable familiarity), and to destroy it for the novice.

Thus, real readability measures (which haven't yet been expressed as
algorithms and therefore haven't been implemented in software) involve
syntactical analysis, and appropriateness of vocabulary to reader (and
therefore in-depth audience analysis), above questions of "average
syllables per word" and "average words per sentence". Sooner or later,
we'll have to come to grips with rhetorical structures (especially
issues of paragraph structure) too.

Meanwhile, measures like the Flesch-Kincaid (rather better than Gunning)
are of some value when applied to general material (such as fiction and
newspapers -- if anyone can tell the difference nowadays), but I really
question their value for our kind of writing.

Of course, the original posting wasn't asking "Is this any use?" but
rather "How can I do it?" Still, if it's no use, why bother?
Michael Lewis
Brandle Pty Limited, Sydney, Australia
PO Box 1249, Strawberry Hills, NSW 2012
Suite 8, The Watertower, 1 Marian St, Redfern 2016
Tel +61-2-9310-2224 ... Fax +61-2-9310-5056

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