Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

The Dreaded Semicolon

Never has a punctuation mark been so feared as the semicolon. Semicolons are an excellent choice for writing if you give them half a chance. Consider them super commas ready to do the heavy lifting a comma cannot.

When There Are Two or More Independent Clauses

If you are writing a short sentence, and you put another short sentence about the same topic behind it, you can use a semicolon. It's grammatical freedom like none other.

I enjoy using advanced punctuation; it really elevates my composition game.

Use a semicolon in place of a comma and a conjunction or an end mark to impress your friends and family.

When There is Internal Punctuation

Not all independent clauses are created equally. Use a semicolon when punctuation appears internally in a sentence.

Lately, I've been feeling like my grammar is on point; I would like to flex my grammatical muscles with semicolons.

If a comma was used to separate these clauses, it would result in a comma splice. This is a perfect instance for a semicolon.

When There is a List of Items Separated with a Comma

Commas are wonderful for lists of small items, but sometimes writers need an option for lists of objects that contain commas within the list.

I have been to Houston, Texas; Seattle, Washington; and Lincoln, Nebraska.

I enjoy using semicolons in lists; using commas sparingly; and using proper grammar when I write.

Letting semicolons into your world will open up all kinds of possibilities. Use them with independent clauses, clauses with internal punctuation, and lists with commas. Go ahead and increase your composition skills today.

Four Spanish Words That English Really Needs

Spanish is a language spoken all over the world, in North America, South America, Europe, and hundreds of countries. It's estimated that over 400 million people speak Spanish worldwide. In schools in America, it's one of the most popular languages offered in schools.

But there are some words in Spanish that we don't have an English equivalent for. Words with deep, strong meanings that we cannot say as simply as they do.

1. Encantar

Encantar in English means multiple things. It is often used to express charm, extreme like, and sometimes love. In English there are six similar words: love, enchant, delight, charm, captivate and bewitch.

2. Tutear

Tutear is a way to address someone, but while it is not completely informal, it is not as formal as it could be. There is no real was to say this English at all, only a way to describe it.

3. Te Quiero

Te Quiero is an in-between phrase- it does not literally mean "I love you" (that's Te Amo), but it does not mean "I like you" either. The closest translations are "I really like you" or "I desire you".

4. Sobremesa

Sobremesa is a word used to describe the period of time after dinner where all the food is all gone, everyone has finished eating, but the conversation is still flowing, so no one leaves the table.

There are many of other words Spanish speakers know but cannot translate easily into English. Hopefully someday English speakers will have words similar to these words, and many more we can't easily explain.

English: It's All Greek To Me

Democracy, Technology, Logic, Energy ... what do all of these words have in common? An ancestor in Ancient Greece. All throughout the English language, particularly in the realms of medicine, science, art, and politics, we find words built out of pieces of an ancient past.

Imagine you are a language archaeologist (there's another one!). You are digging through ruins, finding broken pieces here and there, and suddenly you discover there is a pattern to the pieces: they fit together. Even better, they fit together in hundreds of different ways, and each combination means something new and different.

That is what it is like to discover the Greek 'pieces' that combine to form so many English words. Here are just a few that a language archaeologist might find while digging through Ancient Greek:

  • Philos: Love, affection
  • Sophia: Wisdom
  • Logos: Word, Study, Knowledge
  • Bios: Life
  • Graphia: writing

Pick up 'bios' and click it like a Lego brick to 'logos' and you have biology, the study of life. Take off 'logos' and click on the 'graphia' piece, and you have biography, 'writing of life.' Tack 'logos' to the end of 'psyche' (mind and soul) and you have psychology. Click 'philos' and 'sophia' together to make Philosophy, literally the 'love of wisdom.' Afraid of heights? Attach 'akro,' Greek for 'high,' to 'phobos' (the name of the Greek god of Fear), and you have a name for that: acrophobia. What do you call a government controlled by its people? Well, how about linking up 'demos' (the people) to 'kratia' (power or rule)? That works, right? Need a word for a sleepy trance? How about borrowing the Greek god of Sleep's name? He's called Hypnos.

Once you get started it's hard to stop, and you're finding the pieces everywhere, switching them around and trying new combinations until suddenly you're surrounded by thousands of words. Cardiology. Telephone. Thermal. Microscope. Automobile. Geology.

Because Ancient Greek isn't actually spoken anymore, it's called dead, or extinct (as is Latin, which is another abundant source of English words).

But is it? It's not used in conversation anymore (Modern Greek, even though it shares the same alphabet, is an almost completely different language), but we could say that it lives on in English, which has taken so many words from so many languages and made them its own.

So quick! What does 'philology' mean?

Long "Lives" the Queen?

If you live in the English-speaking world, the odds are high that you've heard, or maybe even used, the expression, "Long Live the Queen." There's a special feeling to the phrase, isn't there? Not because of the content of the phrase itself, but because of its texture as it's spoken. It's as though it belongs to a foreign or earlier set of English rules, not quite your own. It just feels a little -- off.

After all, grammatically, it's a bit of a perplexity. Why "live," and not "lives?" If we were to reorder the phrase, we would certainly say, "The Queen lives long." So, what are we actually saying when we use this phrase? Is there a reason for this strange verb form?

It turns out that there is, and it's called "Subjunctive Mood." The Subjunctive Mood can be found in many languages. As its name may hint, it is a mood which expresses subjectivity. In other words, the Subjunctive is how we might express our own emotions, judgments, or uncertainties when discussing a situation. This may sound difficult to get a hand around, but in fact, English-speakers instinctively use this grammatical mood all the time, mostly to express strong desire for something.

An everyday example: "I would prefer that you be on time," as opposed to "I would prefer that you are on time." There are very few, if any, instances in which the latter would or could be used -- and you, as an English speaker, already knew this!

Often, in English, the Subjunctive mood is hidden. The form of the verb usually doesn't even change. Between "I call my mother daily," and "it is important that I call my mother daily," can you tell which is Subjunctive? Although the modified verb, "to call," looks the same in both, it's only in the second phrase that it is Subjunctive. An exception to this frequent pattern is the verb "to be," which when modified changes from "I am" to "I be," or "You are" to "You be," as in the example shown above.

One other common exception is the "he/she" form of most regular verbs. In the Subjunctive mood, "she gives" becomes "she give." "He calls" becomes "He call." At this point, you can probably see the pattern: With the Subjunctive mood, the 's' is dropped from the end of "he/she" verb forms.

Now that you know the basic rules, go out and use them freely! Long live the Subjunctive!

Four Eponymous English Words

In any language, words both evolve and are created out of thin air. It is not unusual for a certain person or place to become associated with a trend, item, or invention and for that name to then become a common word in a language. These words are called 'eponyms' and the English language has several examples. Here are four:

1. Sandwich

Why not start with the most delicious of the eponyms? The Earl of Sandwich was an avid cardplayer (ahem, gambler), and he wouldn't leave the table for his meals. Instead, he would eat a piece of meat served between two slices of bread, an easy meal to hold in one's hands without a lot of extra silverware cluttering up the playing table. As the story goes, his fellow cardsharks came to so closely associate this meal with the Earl they started asking for a 'sandwich.'

2. Gerrymander

A much less appetizing word than sandwich, 'gerrymander' is the process of apportioning legislative districts in such a way as to be politically beneficial to one party or another. The name results from legislation signed by Massachussetts Governor Elbridge Gerry that resulted in a salamander-shaped district in the Bay State. Combine Gerry + Salamander and you get both a compound word and an eponym!

3. Saxophone

It just sounds cool, right? Like the name just makes sense? The instrument's name didn't just appear out of thin air, though! It's named for its inventor, Adolphe Sax. We can just assume he was pretty hip.

4. Diesel

Rudolf Diesel gives his name to this form of gasoline and engine. He invented the diesel engine in the early nineteenth century, and while he might not be widely remembered his name is widely used to this day.

If you dig further, you'll find plenty of other examples of eponyms in the English language. If you're interested in finding more, we recommend looking in the science sector, as inventions and discoveries lend themselves well to eponyms.

Four More Words That English Really Needs

The English language is beautiful, complex, and sometimes unwieldy. Even with its nuance and vast selection of words, however, the English language has gaps where other languages don't. Sometimes the human condition and our complicated world just need a word that English doesn't have. Here are four words from other languages that we either need to adopt or establish our own version of:

1. Tartle

What a novel idea - a word for a situation that nearly everyone has found themselves in!Tartle is that point in time where you forget someone's name, but you're supposed to be saying the name, most often in introduction. In English, we just call it awkward, but "tartle" has a much nicer ring to it, don't you think?

2. Cernes

Ever been tired and had bags under your eyes? You're human, of course you have. But in France, you wouldn't need to use four words to describe the unsightly look of a night without sleep. The French simply call those dark circles "cernes."

3. Tsundoku

Have a pile of books you've owned forever, keep adding to, but have never read? If you live in Japan, you'd be committing tsundoku, a very useful Japanese word for the book hoarders in the world.

4. Mencolek

April Fools Day must be wild in Indonesia. They have formal words for classic tricks! Mencolek is the Indonesia word for what in English we are forced to call "the lame prank where you tap someone on the wrong shoulder but are really on the other side so they look and don't see anything but immediately know what happened because that is literally the oldest trick in the book." Mencolek is much more efficient to say, don't you think?

English, for all your charm, you can make things just a little too complicated sometimes. These four words are only a few of the probably hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of words foreign languages simply do better than English.

Four English Words That Have Two Opposite Meanings

The English language can be very strange indeed. In fact, it's so strange that there are many words which have two meanings (at least) and those meanings are the opposite of each other. How's that for confusing? This phenomenon is so common in English that it even has two words to describe it - auto-antonyms and contronyms. Here are four common contronyms that you've probably used:

1. Cleave

You can either "cleave to" something, or cleave something off. Think of a cleaver - a giant knife you use to cut something apart. If you come across a person discussing cleaving you, pay attention to the preposition they are using - they're either a stalker or a serial killer. Or, for all you optimists, maybe they're perfectly nice and just have an odd way of speaking.

2. Dust

When you dust the furniture you are removing the dirt and grime from it, right? But what if you're a baker and you're dusting a cake with powdered sugar? You're not taking it off, you're putting on a dust-like substance (albeit a much tastier one). Children's book character Amelia Bedelia was once famously thrown off by this contronym when she literally threw dust onto her employer's furniture.

3. Garnish

If you've ever had your wages garnished, you know its not a good thing. Your wages are certainly not being added to, rather money is being taken away from you. To the contrary, if you are garnishing a dish you are adding pretty features to it, perhaps a jaunty kale leaf or an orange peel. However, if your spouse has a dish that looks better than yours you might be excused for garnishing a chunk of that lobster from their plate...

4. Clip

A barber clips your hair, in fact he has a tool named after this action (clippers, naturally). In this sense, clip means to remove hair from you. You can also clip coupons to remove them from the newspaper inserts. But, because English is complicated, you can clip papers to hold them together. You can clip your hair back to make it stay in place, and you can clip a cellphone to your belt to look super cool.

English is strange, and it can be complicated. But it never ceases to be fun to explore - even if you have to pay special attention to context and prepositions to make sure words don't literally mean the opposite of their intended use.

Four Words the English Language Really Needs

Whether you are a native English-speaker or you learned it as an additional language, you'll have had plenty of moments where you just could not think of the right word. Maybe you ended up replacing it. Maybe you used a longer phrase instead. If you speak another language, perhaps the problem was not that you could not think of the right word, but that there is no English equivalent for it at all!

Here are a few of our favorite words from other languages that do not have an English translation, but that we think English should absorb as soon as possible!

Kummerspeck (German)

The German word kummerspeck translates literally as "grief bacon". It is the excessive weight gain suffered while emotional eating, particularly emotional eating to avoid negative feelings, such as after a breakup or because of stress.

Gattara (Italian)

The closest thing in English to the Italian gattara would be a "crazy cat lady". A gattara is an elderly lady who devotes her time to caring for stray cats. While our “crazy cat lady” generally takes in the stray cats, caring for them in her own home, a gattara feeds and cares for homeless cats on the streets.

L’ésprit d’escalier (French)

If you have ever walked away from an argument or discussion only to think of a great comeback a few minutes or hours later, the French have a word for that, l’ésprit d’escalier. The word translates as "staircase wit" and came about because philosopher Denis Diderot said he would think of a great response only by walking away and literally walking down the stairs.

Sobremesa (Spanish)

There must be a word for when people are done eating but they continue having a great conversation, right? Not in English, but the Spanish word is sobremesa.

Those are a few of our favorites, but how about yours? What do you feel the urge to express, but aren't able to because the word just isn't there?

How To Count Syllables Programatically

Consider the following sentence:

he moped around the house, upset because he had crashed his moped

See the problem? The words "moped" are one example of the kinds of words we usually refer to with colorful language only repeatable after the watershed. They are homographs - words which are spelled the same but pronounced differently. There is a subset of homographs which are not just pronounced differently, but actually have a different number of syllables depending on which meaning you are going for.

Along with file and file, learned and learned, tier and tier and a few dozen others, these represent just one problem with counting syllables with a computer.

The Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

Flesch readability scores are probably the most commonly cited and used of all readability scoring formula. But, what actually are Flesch (1948) and Flesch-Kincaid (1975) readability scores? And what do the scores really mean?

What is a Flesch Reading Ease score?

a score of 70-80 is equivalent to school grade level 7

Flesch Reading Ease (1948) is a readability test. The score on the test will tell you roughly what level of education someone will need to be able to read a piece of text easily.

The Reading Ease formula generates a score between 1 and 100 (although it is possible to generate scores below and above this banding). A conversion table is then used to interpret this score. For example, a score of 70-80 is equivalent to school grade level 7 and should be fairly easy for the average adult to read.

The Flesch Reading Ease test originated from research in the education sector from a need for teachers to choose texts appropriate to the reading level of their student. Yet, its use has always been far more wide-ranging. In the late forties, the creator of the measure, Rudolph Flesch, worked as a consultant with the Associated Press to try and help them improve the readability of newspapers. Now, the Flesch Reading Ease is used by digital marketers, research communicators and policy writers among to help them assess the ease by which a piece of text will be understood and engaged with.

And what about the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (1975)?

In the mid-seventies, the US Navy were looking for a way of measuring the difficulty of technical manuals used by Navy personnel in training. A challenge in using the Flesch Reading Ease measure is that test results are not immediately meaningful. To make sense of the score requires the aid of a conversion table. So, the Flesch Reading Ease test was revisited and, along with other readability tests, the formula was amended to be more suitable for use in the navy. The new calculation was the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (1975).

For the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test (1975), grade level classifications are based on the attainment of participants in the norming group on which the test was trialled. The grade represents norming group participants’ typical score. So, if a piece of text has a grade level readability score of 6, this is equivalent in difficulty to the average reading level of the norming group who were at grade 6 when they took the test.

How do the tests work?

If maths is not your thing, look away now.

The mathematical formula underlying the two tests look like this:

For many of us, the sight of a mathematical formula is rather scary. But, the building bricks that make up the formulas are actually very simple.

The formulas are based on two factors:

  • sentence length as judged by the average number of words in a sentence
  • word length as judged by the average number of syllables in a word.

The rationale here is straightforward. Sentences that contain a lot of words are more difficult to follow than shorter sentences. Just read James Joyce’s Ulysses if you don’t believe me. Similarly, words that contain a lot of syllables are harder to read than words that use fewer syllables. For example, the sentence ‘It was a lackadaisical attempt’ is more difficult to read than ‘It was a lazy attempt.’

Making sense of the results

the weightings differ between formulas resulting in different readability scores for each test

Both the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests are calculated on the same units: sentence length as judged by the average number of words in a sentence, and word length as judged by the average number of syllables in a word. But, the weightings differ between formulas resulting in different readability scores for each test.

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease: For Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease, the higher the reading score, the easier a piece of text is to read. Note that this differs from the majority of readability scores where a lower score is easier. To make sense of a Reading Ease score you can use a conversion table to translate their score into a grade level score. For example, a reading score of 60-70 is equivalent to a grade level of 8-9 so a text with this score should be understood by 13-15 year olds.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: As stated in the label, the score that is generated by the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is equivalent to the US grade level of education that the reader would require to be able to understand that piece of text. So, a piece of text with a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score of 8 should be readable by those who have reached the 8th grade of schooling (aged 13-14).

So, which test should I use?

Flesch Reading Ease is the classic of the readability tests

Flesch Reading Ease is the classic of the readability tests. Published in 1948 it was the first of a glut of mid-20th-century readability tests with the Gunning-Fox and Spache both appearing a few years later in 1952. The original and longest established readability test, the Flesch Reading Ease it is used widely by government departments and researchers. Given its durability, Reading Ease is seen by some as a safer bet in terms of generating reliable and valid readability scores.

A possible limitation of the Flesch Reading Ease measure is that a conversion table is required to understand the results of the test. Hence, the reason that the simplified version of the Flesch test formula, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level measure, was created. The benefit of the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula is that the results are easy to interpret with the score matched to the grade level required to read the given piece of text.

When is Flesch-Kincaid most useful?

Flesch-Kincaid readability tests are useful any time you want to measure how easily people can understand a piece of text. Text intended for readership by the general public should aim for a grade level of around 8. So, that’s a Grade Level readability score of around 8, or a Reading Ease score of around 60.

What you might use readability testing for depends on your sector.

You may be:

  • a teacher trying to choose textbooks for your class
  • a marketer advertising a product
  • an author editing your novel
  • a researcher trying to communicate your findings to a non-specialist audience

Whatever you are writing, readability scores can give you valuable insights into how easy your text is to understand by your intended reader, in turn, influencing the extent to which people engage with and take on the message you want to communicate.

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