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Rudolf Flesch: we’re cramming ever more ideas into single sentences

Have you come across the late Rudolf Flesch, who was America’s foremost readability expert?

In his book, The Art of Readable Writing, Flesch takes aim at pompous phrasing. He writes: “If someone cannot understand a piece of writing, the trouble is rarely that his vocabulary is too small; usually he simply cannot cope with the way the words are used“.

He gives the example of a veteran who receives a letter from the US government saying: “The non-compensable evaluation heretofore assigned you for your service-connected disability is confirmed and continued.”

The veteran wrote back to ask what on earth they meant. All of the words in the letter were commonplace, yet together they became meaningless. In fact, the government were mere saying that “there hadn’t been any change in his physical condition and so he still wouldn’t get any money”.

Flesch argues that over the centuries, English sentences have become ever-more crammed with ideas. That’s despite average sentence lengths decreasing. He says that we’ve taken phrases that used several words and condensed them into single words. Indeed, this conversion of phrases into words been going on for a long time: Anglo-Saxon words such as tooth came from “that which tuggeth”.

Flesch writes: “while we don’t need so many words any more to express our thoughts, the words we do use carry a much heavier load of ideas… as far as ideas are concerned, our sentences are usually much longer and fuller than those people wrote two or three centuries ago”.

The danger, he says, is that “our more heavy-handed writers don’t care much for the modern short sentence either; and so we get prose that consists of overlong sentences packed to the brim with long, overloaded words”.

And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with so much material that comes out of big organisations today.