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The Nuts and Bolts (Syntax) of Readable Language

By: Serena Williams, Director of Continuous Quality Improvement - Avantpage, Inc.

23 December 2015

Clients will often tell us that they want a text to be comprehensible at a 5th or 8th grade reading level, but they may not be aware of how one measures readability. For English, we have several scales (i.e., Flesch-Kincaid), but such tests are difficult to find in other languages. This is where Linguistics can help--the field of syntax allows us to view a passage's structures systematically in order to ask if it is "readable".

Syntax, very simply put, the study of how morphemes combine and are sequenced into phrases and sentences, is a way meaning is conveyed just like individual words do. However, unlike the "dictionary definitions" that lexical items have, function words often show relationships between words, phrases, or entities in a sentence. When you rely more on syntax to convey meaning, the language becomes more complex, which is why the sentence, "Before he learned to speak Vietnamese, he had spent 12 years studying Korean" is harder to parse than "He studied Korean for 12 years, and then learned to speak Vietnamese." The clause order (dependent followed by independent) is out of time sequence, and the past perfect, the written comma (or vocal pause), and the subordinate signal word before are all syntactic elements that provide key clues for meaning.

In order to reduce the cognitive load-- the degree to which the brain has to work to make sense of an utterance-- keeping clause sequence in intuitive organization is a great strategy. This is especially true for cause-effect statements that are important for legal language or for voters-- "If this amendment passes, the state will have new avenues for studying predation on striped bass"-- in addition to sequential statements that are the bread and butter of medical test preparation instructions: "Do not eat for two hours before the test."

Another syntactic aspect of readability is sentence length. Simple sentences tend to be short (though toddlers are very good at demonstrating exceptions to this probability), while compound and complex sentences, by virtue of the fact that they contain at least two clauses, tend to be longer. Thus, a good measure of readability is sentence length; when a text is "chunked" into logical sections of reasonable size, again, that pesky parser, the brain, has an easier time processing. By breaking up sentences that contain subordination into separate parts with clear transition words, you reduce syntactic structures that are contributing to meaning, or at least the brain can take them up fewer at a time.

Of course, there is much more to readability than just syntactic structures, such as being culturally appropriate, easy to navigate, and with technical terms explained. Analyzing syntactic complexity in a document, though, is one crucial step to making your text accessible to the end-user.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams is the Quality Manager at Avantpage, Inc., a localization and translation company with offices in Davis, CA, Mexico City, and Warsaw, Poland. She is also a Research Associate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Davis, where she received her PhD. She holds a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics, a master’s degree in Spanish Literature, and an MBA with an emphasis in Organizational and Behavioral Psychology. After 16 years in academia, Serena brought her teaching experience to Avantpage, which she used to create the internship program there. Since 2015, Avantpage has hosted nine interns for nine different value-adding projects.