Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How did Abe do?

We took the boys and my sister Dianne to Gettysburg a few weeks ago (or should I say, she took us). Anyway, the battlefield, the new cyclorama and the new museum impressed us.

If you visit the museum, you will see displays that include General Robert E. Lee's gloves and buttons and many other very interesting artifacts. As you leave the museum, you come to a room with a wall-sized photo of Abe Lincoln and his famous Gettysburg Address. (I took a photo of my son Alex in front of Abe and posted it on Facebook if you want to see Abe in scale).

As you sit in this small room, you will hear a recorded version of the Address by a famous actor. It's very impressive and moving. I highly encourage everyone to visit the new museum (especially on a weekday in the Spring when school's in session an it's warm).

In any event, the visit started me to thinking again about the speech, famous for its directness and simplicity (especially as compared to the other speeches delivered that day). And, I've been talking to my classes about readability and the use of the readability tool on their (and your) computers.

If you go to spellcheck and click on "options", your computer will give you a list that includes the readability tool. I encourage you to do that. It provides you with a measure of the readability of any document. It measures readability according to the number of words, the number of sentences, the amount of passive voice, the length of words and sentences. It does this with the (correct) assumption that short words, sentences and paragraphs are easier to read.

So, I copied the famous Gettysburg Address into Word and checked the readability. Here's what I found: It has 271 words; those words use 1196 characters; it has only three paragraphs and 10 sentences for 3.3 sentences per paragraph. The speech has 27words per sentence and the words average 4.2 characters. It has 20% passive constructions and has a reading ease of 65 (100 is best). Finally my computer tells me that the grade level required to understand the speech is 10.9. All of this is according to a system devised by Flesch and Kincaid.

What's to be said, then, about the readability of the document that is acclaimed as a masterpiece of directness and simplicity? Well, it is brief and it expresses profound thoughts in a direct way. It uses mostly short words and keeps the passive voice to a minimum. But is has some shortcomings.

I couldn't find literacy or grade level statistics for 1865, but I'm inclined to think they were lower than they are today. In fact, literacy is at 99% in America but the New York Times recently said literacy for college graduates in the US is falling! So, how many Americans in 1865 understood a speech delivered at an 11th grade level? I am most bothered by the 27 word sentences. The Kansas City Star did a study that said readers' comprehension falls when sentences are over 15 words.

Ultimately I like the speech (except for the "Four score" part) but I have a masters degree and can figure out Abe's sentiments. And, I'm not saying it is a bad speech (and, it was meant to be heard, not read). But, I'm also not surprised that the speech generated so little attention at the crowded cemetery that day. Abe was an intelligent, self-educated guy. He wrote mostly very direct messages, messages aimed at his intellectual equals, those most likely to be decision makers or those most likely to be concerned with those decisions. He wrote a poetic and moving passage that day at Gettysburg but few of the poorly educated in the audience knew it.

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