Word Up, Yo

Here are some fun (if disputable) facts for you. The total number of words in the English language – at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary – is 171,476. Apparently there can be some dispute about what constitutes a word, so that number is just the total number of words they have listed in the dictionary.

Of that 171,476 words the average person knows between 20,000 and 35,000. Average is the key word here. Not everyone knows what fustian means, let alone cares, so most people tend to avoid that style of writing and speaking. Compared to 171,476, 35,000 seems like a small percentage, but it’s still 35,000 words rattling around in the average person’s skull. Some, like fustian or pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis are just hanging out waiting for an excuse to make the user sound smart, others like instantiate or concatenate pop up frequently in specialized jargon or argot but aren’t used in regular speech or writing.

So, how many words does the average person use during the average day? Anywhere between 1200 and 2000.

That’s it. It’s also been estimated that 95% of writing and speaking can be easily understood with just 1 3/4% of the available words in English. With a vocabulary of only a couple thousand words, anyone can usually get by on a day-to-day basis.

And, to make things even more fun, there’s a theory that most writing should be capped at about the 7th grade level. Why? Because it’s easier to digest information when it’s presented in a simpler format. I’ve read books that rely on complicated sentence structure and flowery prose. While I applaud the author’s linguistic skills, the resulting book is exhausting to read. The reason is because it takes time and effort to parse out the language to get to the heart of the meaning. And, ultimately, it’s all about the meaning. Without meaning, a book is just a bunch of pretty words.

So, why do I bring this up? Well, there’s a little program called Pro Writing Aid that, among other things, analyzes the level of writing in your manuscript. My recent one is showing a 7th grade reading level.

When I first ran the analysis and found that out, I was a bit pissed off. I’ve got a damned Master’s degree after all. How did I manage to write something at that level? Shouldn’t it be at least High School? I mean, sure, I’ve got a penchant for sophomoric humor, but I thought I was presenting it at a higher level. After a little research, I felt a little better because, as I pointed out earlier, the more complicated the sentence, the longer it takes to read and you don’t want to leave a reader feeling exhausted after reading your book. Enthralled, ecstatic, elated, or eviscerated, sure. But not exhausted.

How do you keep writing at a 7th grade level when, unlike me, you’re actually trying to? It turns out a lot of the “rules” we accept as writers wind up dropping us into that magical realm. Short, punchy sentences, avoiding passive voice, keeping things simple instead of going for the complicated words. All these tips to increase readability inadvertently drop the writing level to right around 7th grade. And that, as it turns out, is a good thing.

goodjob

Just for a lark, I ran this post through Pro Writing Aid and let it work its magic. It turns out this post contains 568 words, 274 of which are distinct. The most unique words are:

  1. fustian
  2. pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis
  3. punchy
  4. sophomoric
  5. concatenate

It’s got seven easy-to-read paragraphs and one slightly difficult-to-read paragraph. The average sentence length is 15.4 words (good) and two long sentences (over 18 words, bad). It’s also written at somewhere between a 7th and 8th grade level, which is a little higher than it could be, but that’s probably just the evil effects of fustian and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

There you go, your interesting but useless bit of trivia for the day. There’s a very good reason for keeping thing simple: It makes it easier to read and easier-to-read stuff sells better.

Further reading:

Oxford dictionaries

The Economist

Quora

BL Copywriting

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