Congress's vocabulary falls a full grade level in seven years

Nicko from the Sunlight Foundation sez,

The U.S. Congress speaks at nearly a full grade level lower than it did seven years ago, according to a new Sunlight Foundation analysis. Using the website -- which features the most popular words and phrases in the Congressional Record since 1996 -- Sunlight reviewed the vocabulary and sentence structure of what members of Congress are saying.

Today's Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from a high of 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. The Flesch-Kincaid test was used to conduct the analysis, which equates higher-grade levels with longer words and longer sentences.

A complete database of how each member in the current Congress ranks in the analysis is available. The analysis, written by Senior Fellow Lee Drutman in collaboration with Software Developer Dan Drinkard, is broken into three parts on the Sunlight blog:

* Summary and 'report card' infographic

* Full analysis and complete methodology

* Congressional use of top SAT vocabulary words

Top Five
* Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-CA) -- 16.01
* Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) -- 14.94
* Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-PA) -- 14.19
* Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI) -- 14.19
* Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) -- 14.18

Bottom Five
* Rep. John Mulvaney (R-SC) -- 7.95
* Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) -- 8.02
* Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) -- 8.04
* Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) -- 8.09
* Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR) -- 8.13

Is Congress getting dumber, or just more plainspoken? (Thanks, Nicko!)


    1. If it’s supposed to be the application of the Plain Language initiative, it’s a complete failure, given the state of civics in our primary schools (ie, nonexistent). 

  1. I’d like to see politicians concerned about Strunk & White more than Flesch-Kincaid. According to Amazon, The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White gets 8.6 on the Flesch-Kincaid index.  Omit needless words and eschew obfuscation, y’all!

  2. Awesome.  So in 25 years congress will mandate irrigation of farm fields with electrolyte laden water. 

    I need a new country to live in.

  3. I must be missing something here. The IDEAS espoused by too many members of Congress are stupid, but using small, Anglo-Saxon words to explain ideas should probably be viewed positively. The fact that the foundation document of our republic is written at a 17.8 level might explain why so few people understand it, and fail to understand their rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

    Or did I completely misunderestimate this?

  4. The stupidifying of our electric officals needs to be finalized. We must decover what is redusing their menal capacitors and project them from it. Probability it is a sucret tearer wepon from a rouge notion. 

    1. If uneducated hick English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for the Republican Party. After all, college is just where they try to indoctrinate you to speak like gay liberal hippie socialists.

    2. If the grade level of politicians’ speeches is a reliable proxy for their intelligence, the Republicans were smarter than the Democrats for most of GWB’s presidency.

  5. It’s not the people who are speaking,  it’s the people they are speaking to.  If they all spoke at a college level,  they would only be understood by somewhere around 30% of the population.

    Therefore,  in order to be understood by the teeming mass of imbeciles in this country, they must “stoop” to the level they are presently presenting at.

    1. This is nothing new. Newspapers have been writing down to the masses at a fourth- grade level for years.

  6. Strunk and White: “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” Flesch-Kincaid rewards long words and winding sentences, but clarity rewards the opposite.

    1. Flesch-Kincaid rewards long words and winding sentences, but clarity rewards the opposite.

      Unless you’re Dickens, or Melville, or Tom Wolfe, or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Just one more reason Strunk & White is the most overrated style guide in the English language.

      I agree that pith and anglo-saxon-derived words are usually better for both impact and clarity but can we please stop treating Elements of Style like a frickin’ holy book already?

      1. I thought Dickens was also considered to be ‘dumbing down’ in his day? 

    2.  Flesch-Kincaid doesn’t “reward” language complexity, it measures it.   The reward comes from successfully matching the complexity of the language to the audience and contents.  Maybe that means you want to talk like a grad student translating literary critiques of classical Latin poetry, or maybe it means you want to write clear simple instructions for assembling a machine so that your readers don’t get the parts in backwards.   Having a tool to measure your language complexity makes it easier to decide whether you’re hitting your target.

  7. I recall writing papers in high school, using MS Word’s Flesch-Kincaid meter religiously, to sound smarter.

    All that does is makes you look like a blowhard, using absurd language.

    Flesch-Kincaid is a very flawed test of intelligence, as intelligence can mean using more clear language. It’s a test that’s easily gamed by using unintelligible lawyer-speak, really.

    1.  It’s not a test of intelligence, it’s a test of complexity.  If you’re trying to write at a complexity level that’s inappropriate for the contents and audience you’re writing for, it can tell you.  On other hand, if you can’t bedazzle them with brilliance, sometimes it’s useful to baffle them with bullsh*t.  Other times it’s really really unuseful  Your call.

  8. It’s nothing to do with stupidity, but to do with the average length of a soundbite having decreased steadily. 1n 1968 the average soundbite was 43 seconds. It’s now less than eight seconds.

    If politicians want to get quoted, they have to speak in shorter soundbites. Blame the media for wanting brevity, or blame the public for having the attention spans of gnats. The politicians are the real victims here, having to cram their distortions and deceptions into shorter and shorter sentences.

  9. The bottom 5 respond:

    I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, honey –
    I wudn’t born no yesterday
    Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education
    Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way.

    -Billy Joe Shaver

  10. In other news, the Democratic and Republican parties will now be known as the Sweet!s and the Dude!s.

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