Several years ago I came across some information about obfuscatory scrivenery – or, so I can understand it: FOGGY WRITING. Enjoy! This may cause you to do some research and come up with your own “scores.” (This will be here later if you’re really busy today).
Some years ago, a New York plumber discovered that hydrochloric acid was dandy for cleaning clogged drains. He sent his suggestion to the National Bureau of Standards. “The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable,” the Bureau wrote back, “but the ionic residues are incompatible with metallic permanence.” “Thank you,” replied the plumber. “I thought it was a good idea, too.” FINALLY, someone at the Bureau wrote, “Don’t use hydrochloric acid! It eats hell out of the pipes!”
“Foggy writing” – letters, memos, reports, and proposals that couch $5 ideas in $500 language – has been estimated to cost American business $ billions a year in wasted time, lost contracts, and alienated customers. It costs a good many workers their promotions, too. In a survey, top executives from FORTUNE’s list of 500 companies ranked communication skill as the most important quality for business leaders – ahead of technical, financial, and marketing ability. “Even a genius will fail if he doesn’t make himself clear,” says Douglas Mueller, director of the Gunning-Meuller Clear Writing Institute in Santa Barbara, California. Meuller travels around the country showing people how to improve their writing. His course, devised by the late Robert Gunning, has taught thousands of executives, scientists, and engineers how to write more clearly by monitoring their Fog Index. Two things can fog a piece of writing: BIG WORDS, which are usually too abstract to make pictures in the mind, and LONG SENTENCES, which tax the memory. The Fog Index puts these two factors into a simple formula that tells how many years of schooling are needed to read the sample easily. The first letter to the plumber, for example, has a Fog Index of 26. It would read easily for someone with at least a Ph.D. and seven years of postdoctoral study. The second letter, with a Fog Index of 6, would be a breeze for a sixth grader.
Anyone can calculate his or her own Fog Index. Choose a sample of at least 100 words. Figure the average sentence length of words; count clauses separated by colons and semicolons as full sentences. Count the number of Big Words. A Big Word is any word of three syllables or more, unless it’s a proper name, a verb that has reached three syllables by adding ed or es (but not ing), or a short-word compound like everything or bookkeeper. Figure the percentage of Big Words; it’s 100 times the number of Big Words divided by the number of words in the sample. Add the percentage of Big Words to the average sentence length, multiply by 0.4 and drop everything after the decimal point. This paragraph has a Fog Index of 8. (You probably thought it would be a lot higher, didn’t you; I did).
At what Fog Index should a writer write? “A low one,” says Mueller. The Nation’s largest daily newspaper, the WALL STREET JOURNAL, got that way by lowering its Fog Index to 11. TIME and NEWSWEEK also average 11. The NEW YORKER usually comes in under 12. Technical journals range a lot higher, but most are notoriously hard reading, even for specialists. Good technical memos, according to a study at Bell Laboratories, average only 14. “The truth is,” says Mueller, “no matter what Fog Index your readers can tolerate, they prefer to get their information without strain.” Mueller says he’s never met anyone, in any field, who couldn’t lower his Fog Index to 15. “Einstein could. It’s easy. Just keep your average sentence length under 20, cross out every useless word, and never use a Big Word unless you absolutely need to.” Remember: The less energy your reader wastes on decoding your language, the more he’ll have left for your brilliant ideas.” (Terry Dunkle)
Following are four writing samples with their Fog Indexes. Some were written for easy reading. Others clearly were not.
FROM A BUSINESS LETTER: We might further mention that we would be glad to furnish any one of these whistles on a trial basis, to the extent that if the smaller size was not adequate enough, it could be returned in lieu of the purchase of a larger size, depending upon actual operation and suitability of your requirements for a signal distance and audibility. Fog Index: 28. Translation: “If your whistle isn’t loud enough, send it back and we’ll give you a bigger one.” Fog Index: 6
FROM THE SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL NATURE: The current fashion for environmental impact assessment (ETA) is partly explained by the continuing force of the environmental protection movement in Western countries. That movement is now under severe pressure from economic recession, and there are signs that impact assessments themselves will play a decreasing role in planning and development. Certainly, this is the message that emerges from the U.S.A., where the emphasis is switching back to the costs of environmental protection. Fog Index: 17.
OPENING OF GETTYSBURG ADDRESS: Fourscore and seven years ago our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Fog Index: 10.
MATTHEW 6:9-13 (KING JAMES VERSION): Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. Fog Index: 4.