Some Prose And Cons Of "Fog" Indices

By Tom Davey, Editor, ES&E Magazine

The Roman poet and satirist Quintus Horatius Flaccus gave this advice to aspiring writers: Be brief, scratch out more words than you write. Horace, as we know him today, made his statements some two millennia before the Fog Index was devised by Robert Gunning to assess the clarity of written prose. While there is no denying his Index is a useful tool, it is a typical American attempt to arithmetically measure an art form. Painting by numbers was the ultimate pejorative to describe technically adequate, but lifeless visual art Ð almost comparable to jigsaw puzzles. Perhaps addiction to fog indices stems from attempts by untalented scribes to write by numerical formulas. This ignores the fact that magazine or newspaper writing can transcend being a mere craft to become an art form.

There are several systems but Gunning's Fog Index and Rudolph Flesch's Readability Formula are the best known. Gunning's system is probably the most used. It ingeniously computes polysyllabic words and lengthy sentences into scores which approximate the grade of education required for comprehension. Like golf, low scores are desirable; scores above 20 are regarded as incomprehensible. Regrettably, the subtle meanings in many business and scientific articles disappear into a media black hole after an index of 17 has been tabulated.

As fog indices are already on many computer programs, the emphasis on formula-determined clarity will spread. Already there are variations on the Gunning's Index I was taught at the University of Toronto many years ago, and in focussing on literary opacity, the Fog Index has real value for writers Ð especially technical writers. Writers of computer handbooks, for example, often appear to use a complex, incomprehensible jargon only vaguely related to English. While it is true Leonardo da Vinci wrote backwards in a script which could only be read using a mirror, many despairing computer owners feel it would take an electron microscope to discern meaning from the gibberish posing as instructions in software handbooks. The increasing number of books on many subjects, whose titles stress they are written for Dummies surely is a sad reflection on technical writing skills.

Studies of the Fog Index clearly show that it is possible to write both literary and technical articles without incurring high scores. Some of Ernest Hemingway's work scored low, for example; and Time magazine, Reader's Digest, and the Globe and Mail have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to publish medical and scientific articles with low indices Ð without compromising the scientific integrity of the pieces. By focussing on these examples, the Fog Index has real value. It does, however, have severe limitations. For example, a word like 'eclectic' is given the same 'fog' tally as the more commonplace 'electric'; and unusual words like 'foibles' score lower than the longer, but immediately recognizable, 'fabulous'. Yet the little used words would surely make sentences harder to read than the longer, more commonplace words.

The Index is also blind to literary cadences. Many so-called 'unnecessary', or 'baggage' words often improve writing flow and connection between thoughts. Such words can be more effective in achieving writing clarity under certain conditions than shorter sentences; but they do increase the Fog Index count. Because of this, many editors regard all 'unnecessary' words as unprofessional, resulting in a tendency to cut too deeply into manuscripts. Too often, intellectual sustenance is cut away as editors slice away at what they consider semantic fat.

With too many editors, the situation is analogous to slimming. Some people get so addicted to weight reduction, they literally starve themselves to ill-health or even death. Doctors call this condition anorexia nervosa, a classic case of good motives becoming harmful through excess. Literary anorexia can lead to dangerous oversimplification of complex subjects -- in the mistaken belief that the editors are achieving writing clarity through short words and short sentences.

Fog indices, too, have no way of measuring literary depth, relevance, wit or philosophical profundity. An immortal line on the course of human events by Thomas Jefferson, or a brilliant insight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are both subjected to the same iron rule as a passage from trashy supermarket tabloids; and a snide pejorative could score better on the Index than finely tuned insight.

Perhaps these indices have shaped literature more than is realized. It is now well known that American publishers as a breed, go in for extensive rewriting, their editors often ranking equal to all but celebrity authors. Not so in Britain, where, an American editor recently noted, 'writers seem to spring from the womb with their writing talents already in place'.

Writing clarity, surely should spring from the mind, not an arithmetical formula. History proves it. The great Roman orator Cicero, for example, had a high regard for writing simplicity. Although a lifelong opponent of Caesar, Cicero still felt bound to praise the Emperor's account of the Gallic wars. This was a vast topic, and yet Caesar's writing was, according to Cicero: Like a fine garment bereft of unnecessary ornament. Caesar responded with an equally moving tribute. Cicero, he wrote: Had extended the boundaries of human knowledge, a more noble achievement than mere military conquests.

It is intriguing to reflect that it is the clarity of writing in these exchanges which permits us a privileged glimpse into the minds of these towering historical figures. The words still stir emotion centuries after their exchanges took place. But their clarity came from the distillation of great ideas Ð not from contrived formulas which encourage editors to clip the wings of creative writers, rather than direct ideas towards mountain peaks on the lofty thermals of creative writing.

Tom Davey has lectured on communications at the World Health Organization in Rome, Italy, the University of Toronto, Queen's and McGill Universities, and Humber College. He is the author of four books, the most recent being For Whom The Polls Tell, a collection of satirical essays, based on his editorials published in Environmental Science & Engineering magazine. He can be reached via E-mail at: [email protected]

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