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Readability and the XYZ Affair

I posted this to the "talk" page of the article on November 2, 2005:


Having recently discovered the joys of editing a well-respected encyclopedia, I was eager to share the joy with my son, who is an avid history buff. I explained how he can read an article on a topic he knows well, find mistakes in it or things missing from it, and improve it without having to undergo any test or rite of passage. "Oh yeah?" he challenged me, "what does it say about the XYZ affair?" Anxious to show off the wonders of Wikipedia, I typed the words into the search bar and hit Go. Immediately, this article popped up. We read it together. And we read, and read. It took us a long time to get past the second sentence, which used to read this way:

Three French agents, originally only publicly referred to as X, Y, and Z, but later revealed as Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy and Lucien Hauteval, demanded 50,000 pounds sterling, a $12 million loan from the United States, and a formal apology for comments made by U.S. President John Adams in return for further bilateral peace negotiations during a meeting with a three member American commission consisting of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry in Paris.

This one sentence, 77 words long (and yet a recent improvement over an earlier run-on sentence) has a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 19 (a score of 60 to 80 is recommended for easy reading, according to this website  ) and Grade Level 17. Now I understand our difficulty. The highest grade I completed was 16 (a B.A. degree), and my son is currently in grade 12. I carefully parsed the sentence, noting that my biggest difficulty was in identifying meaning of "in return for"—what was in return for what, I wondered? I started fixing it by changing those words to "as a condition for", which helped me quite a bit, but did nothing for the Flesch-Kincaid score. Then I broke the sentence into three smaller sentences of 40, 30, and 28 words:

Three French agents, originally only publicly referred to as X, Y, and Z, but later revealed as Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy and Lucien Hauteval, demanded enormous concessions from the United States as a condition for continuing bilateral peace negotiations. The concessions demanded by the French included 50,000 pounds sterling, a $12 million loan from the United States, and a formal apology for comments made by U.S. President John Adams. The demand came during a meeting in Paris between the French agents and a three member American commission consisting of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry.

After this change, the Reading Ease score improved from 19 to 24, still a far cry from the goal of 60-80, though. The grade level dropped from 17 to 15 -- a grade I actually completed! Still not satisfied, I tried to break it up further, to see if I could make it more readable, if a little choppy:

Three French agents demanded enormous concessions from the United States as a condition for continuing bilateral peace negotiations. The French agents were identified as X, Y, and Z. Later their names were revealed. They were Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy and Lucien Hauteval. The concessions demanded by the French included 50,000 pounds sterling, a $12 million loan from the United States, and a formal apology. The apology would be for comments made by U.S. President John Adams. The demand came during a meeting in Paris between the French agents and a three member American commission. The American commission consisted of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry.

This gave scores of 35 and 11 -- remember, the first number should be at least 60, and the second no more than 8 for easy reading. Grrr! I read up on the how the formula works. One-syllable words help a lot, I read. I used a thesaurus to help me find short words. Then I imagined how I would explain this to a small child:

Three French men asked for money and for President John Adams to say he was sorry for things he said. The money they wanted was 50,000 pounds sterling and a $12 million loan. The French wanted these things before they would agree to keep having peace talks. At first, the French men were named as X, Y, and Z. Later their names were told. They were Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy and Lucien Hauteval. The demand came when the three French men met in Paris with three American men. The Americans were Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry.

Yahoo! 66 and 7. Ready for the vast Internet public! You'll be happy to know I went with the first improvement, but if people think this last go was best, they are welcome to copy it from here, and paste it into the article. I think it's a little too Church Lady, though, don't you?—GraemeMcRaetalk 04:27, 2 November 2005 (UTC)


I was thrilled by the quick response I received to this little story:


Please stop wasting the time of other user's with your personal stories -- no matter how tantalizing they may be. No one cares. And you're wasting space.   04:39, 2 November 2005 (UTC).
(This was posted by an administrator with the edit comment, "Stop complaining")

I never cease to be amazed at the outpouring of warmth and support I receive from the Wikipedia administrators.

Internet references

addedbytes.com: Readability Score