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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 1:51 PM

Assessing the readability of a TheAtlantic.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample comes from a November 25 article on TheAtlantic.com ("The Evolution of 'Like'" by John McWhorter). Here's the text.

"In our mouths or in print, in villages or in cities, in buildings or in caves, a language doesn't sit still. It can't. Language change has preceded apace even in places known for preserving a language in amber. You may have heard that Icelanders can still read the ancient sagas written almost a thousand years ago in Old Norse. It is true that written Icelandic is quite similar to Old Norse, but the spoken language is quite different -- Old Norse speakers would sound a tad extraterrestrial to modern Icelanders. There have been assorted changes in the grammar, but language has moved on, on that distant isle as everywhere else."

(Note: This month we did not italicize longer words for emphasis because the sample itself contained an italicized word. The longer words, per Fog-Gunning guidelines, are "similar," "different," and "extraterrestrial.")

--Word count: 109 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (21, 2, 15, 21, 30, 20)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 3 percent (3/109 words)
--Fog Index: (18+3)*.4 = 8 (8.4, no rounding)

The final Fog score of 8 (8.4, no rounding) is among the lowest we've seen since we started running this monthly column. The excerpt manages to tick all the important Fog-Gunning boxes. Not only does the author keep the language simple, but he also breaks down his thoughts into manageable portions.

Breaking down our sometimes rambling thoughts into shorter sentences isn't just for readability. As we see here, varying sentence length creates a flow. Mathematically, the 2-word sentence offsets the 30-word sentence that comes later. But it also provides a nice short beat between the 21-word and 15-word sentences that bookend it. Changing the em dash in sentence 5 to a period would further reduce average sentence length, but it's not crucial here.

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