How Readable is Dickens’ Writing?

atkins-bookshelf-literatureIn 1952, American businessman Robert Gunning developed the Gunning Fog Index, an algorithm that measures the readability of English writing. The Gunning Fog Index examines the ratio of several factors (number of words, length of sentences, and frequency of complex words) to calculate a score from 6 to 17 that reflects the level of formal education that a reader would need to have to properly understand text on a first reading. For example, a Fog Index of 6 requires the reading level of a U.S. sixth grader, a Fog Index of 9 requires the reading level of a high school freshman, and a Fog Index of 16 requires the reading level of a college senior. Writing to be easily understood by the largest number of readers, eg., a newspaper, generally needs a Fog Index of 8 or below.

So what would happen if we submitted a writing sample from a novel by a famous author, like Charles Dickens, for example? Realize that Dickens, as well as many British authors of the Victorian era, were not writing to a particularly well-educated audience; his serialized (and thus affordable) novels were very popular among the working class. What level of education is required to read a passage from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? Let’s find out. The first three paragraphs were submitted and analyzed by the Gunning Fog Index algorithm:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood.”

And the envelope, please — the Gunning Fox Index for Dickens’ writing is an impressive 15.38. That is to say, Dickens’ writing requires the formal education of a college junior. Which means, of course, that Victorians were smarter than we thought — or perhaps modern readers do not have sufficiently good education to read the classics at an early age. Or perhaps Americans are really that dumb. Perhaps Dickens had it right — it is the age of foolishness.

Read related posts: The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish
What are the Books You Keep?
How Many Books Does the Average American Read?
The Most Searched Out-of-Print Books
The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: http://gunning-fog-index.com/index.html

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2 responses to “How Readable is Dickens’ Writing?

  • Greg Marcus

    I was really drawn in by your question. I used to read a Dicken’s book every summer 20 years ago. In January, I started David Copperfield. Love the richness of the writing, but it is a very long book. I made it about halfway through before getting pulled towards something else.

    • Alexander Atkins

      Hi Greg: Thanks for your note. The Victorian authors certainly pose a challenge for modern readers — not only for their rich vocabulary, but for their circumlocutory, ornate writing style — in sharp contrast to the succinct tweets and textese that is so prevalent today. Hopefully, reading Dickens is worth the effort. Cheers, Alex

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