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Readability, hard and soft: Editor's Notes #138
January 31, 2013

“ME, pro. The objectionable case of I. The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable and the oppressive.
Each is all three.”

--Ambrose Bierce

In this issue:

1. Readability, hard and soft
2. Tickled my funnybone
3. Interesting Web site

1. Readbility, hard and soft
Readability measures how easily someone can read and understand text. Generally, readability is given a score based on mathematical calculations around the length of words and sentences. I call that the hard score. I have written about it at

The hard score of readability matters. Aiming too high is almost always a mistake. Dropping a readability level makes more readers feel comfortable, and comfortable readers keep reading.

Soft measures of readability may not be as easy to quantify, but they do matter. In fact, soft readability measures can sometimes make up for a hard score that is much too high for most readers.

Here are three soft measures of readability you can use to help your readers.
  1. Good grammar and punctuation
    I wish everyone simply wrote correctly, but almost no one does. I won't get into why so few adults could pass a basic grammar test, but I can tell you that the better your grammar and punctuation, the easier your material will be for readers, even for those who may not be able to tell you the grammar rules.

    Think of a ride across the rough prairie in a wagon without springs. Poor grammar is like that. It may eventually get the reader to the end of the story or argument, but the reader will be battered and bruised in the process.

  2. Beware the pronoun
    One piece of grammar that reaches out to trip up readers is the pronoun. Otherwise savvy writers frequently get all magical in their thinking when the chance comes to fling a few pronouns onto the page. A pronoun? That's the part of speech that stands for a noun. (I, he, she, it, we, they, that, etc.) In most cases, a pronoun should refer back to a specific noun, and that noun will generally be the nearest noun preceding the pronoun.

    Magical thinking allows some writers to momentarily believe that the reader knows what the writer is thinking and to put pronouns in places where they cause readers distress.

    My suggestion to writers is to regard all pronouns with great suspicion. When you revise, stop at each pronoun to check that it is not asking the reader to visit a magic show in which rabbits are cut in half and pigeons catch fire in the magician's pocket.

  3. Rock 'em with rhythm
    If a piece flows easily off the tongue, it will be easy to read silently, too.

    I can't emphasize enough how important it is to read your material aloud. Better yet, ask someone else read your work aloud while you listen. Or read into a recorder and play the recording back to yourself. If the reader stumbles or misreads parts, rework those parts because a smooth rhythm carries the reader along effortlessly even when the passage might otherwise be difficult.
Soft measures of readability matter. Check yours today to see if there are places you can improve.


2.Tickled my funnybone
In democracy it's your vote that counts; in feudalism it's your count that votes.


3. Interesting Web site
Here is a good place to brush up on pronouns. (Copy and paste the URL if necessary.)

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