You want some adverbs with that?

The Sunlight Foundation has published a (seriously wonky) report that measures the grade levels at which our congress critters speak. Their study covers 1996 to this 112th Congress, in both the House and Senate. It’s getting a bit of notice around the buhlogospheric-system and deservedly so. Fascinating stuff.

They say that congressional speech has dropped a full grade level in that period, with Tea Party freshman accounting for much of the most recent decline. (Which Senator speaks at the lowest grade level? Can you guess? Rand Paul bitches!)

The whole thing is here and there are a few interesting sidebars on their blog as well. I don’t think it’s at all clear from the study (I did say it’s wonky) if the change has any significant effect on clarity or successful communication, which after all, is the point of language. But even if utility is unaffected . . .

This grabbed my attention.

Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. . . .

22 responses to “You want some adverbs with that?

  1. Hilarious. And sad.


  2. Personally, I like the trend. Now, if only they would apply to the laws they draft so that we, the People could properly review their meanings and implications.

    Yeah, I know that I can interpret the laws, but I got training in that quite artificial language; most people didn’t.


    • I get that jonolan, but those well educated lads who drew up those 18th century docs didn’t use legalese. They just used elegant and informed language and were defiitely into sentance structure. THAT’s what this measurement is about.

      Now as for legislative langauge – if ONLY it would move in the same direction as their spoken language. Not much chance of that though – obfuscation is the point after all.


      • No, sadly, obfuscation isn’t the point. It’d be easier to correct if it were. They’re written in a special form of “legalese” that has very strict rules and which has many, many words and phrases that, while looking and sounding like normative English, have specialized meanings that all of their own.

        It is more a case of elitism and professional exclusion. They’re lawyers, by and large, and they will not willingly divest themselves of their arcane speech since it would “lower” them to the level of the masses. Couldn’t have just anyone able to write laws could we?


  3. It would be interesting to see this done for a longer timeframe, like back to the founding maybe at 50 year intervals. It should be in the congressional record. I suspect that the downward trend would coincide about the the start of radio and then television. Spoken communication became more important to a politician than actually writing anything down.


    • I would hazard to guess that you’re right. I’ve read a lot of letters and diaries from the 18th and 19th centuries, often from people of little education, and the forming of the sentences – as opposed to what passed for the spelling – would be considered quite advanced as compared to what is common today.


      • I’ve read a number of Civil War letters and WWI letters from famlily members, some of whom never got past 6th grade or so. Much more literate than today.


    • I think too bruce it’s the sheer pace of life. When you wrote a letter in 1780, you knew you’d not see a reply for days, weeks, even months. You had to be very very clear.


  4. Ms. Holland,

    Grade level English is over rated . Integrity and as you say being ” very very clear ” should be the standard in speeches . To too many in DC vagueness has become an art form. It is not that they lack clarity in thought . More that they lack the integrity to put the clarity into their words .

    Imagine how much better things would be in Washington if our Critters all spoke like Yogi Berra, ” Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded “.


  5. Thanks for the link Moe!


  6. Is it cause or effect that broadcast journalism (if that term even applies) is also fraught with dumb-speak? I don’t mean the ideas but rather the words used to convey them. Or perhaps they both reflect the falling educational standards.

    And on that subject, as FL lowers the bar so more under-educated are allowed to pass, why is this a state by state measure. Isn’t this a perfect example of the need for national standards. After all, most people are very mobile these days, seeking education or job opportunities wherever they exist. Surely some dumbie who has been pushed over the passing line in FL is not going to be able to compete in the bigger area.


    • A trivial aside Ed: There used to be a standard called “American Broadcast English”, which meant there were no discernable dialects or accents – and I think that served as a unifying element. When one heard a deep Southern or Appalacian accent, it was usually on the radio and usually either a religion show or a wing nut show. None of those were mainstream until the ’80’s..

      Florida? Hey, we like being at the bottom and dammit we’ll do whatever it takes to stay there!


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