I’m not saying my brother was trying to sabotage me. I would understand if he were, considering the times when we were young and I dropped a heavy glass cake pan on his head. But I’m pretty sure he can’t remember that, or much else from before 1994, so I’m supposing this was all coincidence. But he mentioned me in a tweet that mentioned this web service that tests how readable writing is. It reports the grade level of your writing and counts adverbs and passive voices and all that. It’s got to be reliable because it highlights stuff in different colors and it’s got a beta version of a new system dated 2013 and all that.
I poked around some to figure if I could make anything funny out of the tweet. There’s nothing amusing to be drawn from it at all, alas. But I submitted some of my writing to the service. My guess was that I wrote somewhere around a high-school reading level. And I’d have some fancy paragraphs of college-level text. It turns out my writing normally comes in at about grade level 26. It also has the occasional paragraph so complicated that the web service runs away screaming and jumps off Editors Leap, onto a pile of sharpened blue markers and misplaced apostrophes. The reason that last bit was funny is that editors used to use blue markers to highlight misplaced apostrophes. This was before editors got replaced with spelling checkers and little green squiggles underneath sentences containing the word “were”. That’s “were” as in “used to be”, not “were” as in “wolf”. Very few werewolves are detected by automated grammar systems, which is why you should not use them during full moons.
I was stunned. Gobsmacked, you might say, if the spell checker knows that word. I admit I’ve used overly complicated grammar in the past. That was mostly when I was on a student newspaper, and would annoy the copy editors by crafting sentences that read fine, but were about 1600 words long and turned into complicated gibberish if you tried breaking them up into shorter ones. I had good reason for doing this: we didn’t have much staff, so we had to annoy the people who were doing the tedious but necessary work. In hindsight maybe this is why we didn’t have much staff. Or readership. But I assumed I was done with that and just wrote like normal people do except that it’s not on a cell phone.
I did try diagramming some of my sentences, because I’m in the last age cohort that ever learned how to diagram sentences. One that I thought was a clear and punchy bit of text turned out to have the same structure as the caffeine molecule. Yeah, I was stunned too. Like you, I would have guessed theobromine. But I never imagined I could be so rococo. It’s not like I try to write the way, say, 18th-century people did, when everything read like a subleasing arrangement between two people who didn’t like each other, or themselves, and who didn’t want to make an arrangement anybody could decipher. It just happens.
So now I’m trying to check my text against this automated editor. I hope I can get the reading level down to any grade level that actually exists. It’s hard. Right now the service says 26 of the previous 29 sentences were hard to read, 14 of them were very hard to read, and four of them require they send someone over to crush my wrist underneath a rusted-out satellite TV dish. I gave them my brother’s address.
The service doesn’t like adverbs. It routinely gives me advice like that I have three adverbs and for a text of this length should aim for zero or fewer. The beta version is even stricter: it counts me at four adverbs and wants me to keep it to negative six adverbs or fewer, eliminating adverbs I encounter on the street if need be.
So I’m trying to write to the approval of a web service created by people I don’t know to enforce rules of grammar I might even agree with if I knew what they were. I trust that it must be measuring something reliably since its word count doesn’t agree with my text editor’s, and the beta version’s word count doesn’t agree with either. I don’t know why it’s impossible to get two programs to agree on how many words are in a thing, but at least I know I have to eliminate twelve uses of the passive voice before someone drops a cake pan on my head.
Aw, man, grade 18? Again?