Ever since the first Mensa-caliber storekeeper in Lower Mesopotamia started incising clay tablets to record his inventories, the search has gone on for objective standards by which to judge literary works. The Chinese appreciated subtle and evocative language; the Greeks favored intellectual epics; the Elizabethans responded to rich, complex imagery. Comes now the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, to cut through these former vague and subjective canons of style with a forthright set of mathematical rules. Listen up there, Editors!
MIL-M-38784A (Manuals, Technical: General Style and Format Requirements) has been published for the guidance of those whose fate it is to compose literature for consumption by the military mind. “This specification,” it declares, “covers the general style and format requirements for the preparation of manuscripts and reproducible copy for standard technical manuals and changes thereto.” It soon gets to the nub of the matter:
Readability. (A) Narrative text (those pages that consist of not less than 200 words in consecutive sentences per page) shall conform to the following readability standards
- Standard No. 1. (A) The average sentence length (ASL) shall not exceed 20 words. The desired ASL is 1 to 17 words but 18 to 20 words is acceptable.
- Standard No. 2. (A) The average word length (AWL) shall not exceed 1.60 syllables. The desired AWL is 1 to 1.50 syllables but 1.51 to 1.60 syllables is acceptable...
It is interesting to visualize some possible works that would fall within the “desirable” range just defined: for example, a manual in which the sentences averaged one word long, each word averaging one syllable. Thus might one write pithy instructions for coping with a nuclear holocaust: “Run. Hide. Pray. Die.”
More to the point, however, is to apply these rules to the Government’s own brainchildren – particularly those that purport to offer instruction in writing. For instance, MIL-STD-490 (Specification Practices):
"Language Style. The paramount consideration in a specification is its technical essence, and this should be presented in language free of vague and ambiguous terms and using the simplest words and phrases will convey the intended meaning."
Overlooking for the moment the fact that this is a sentence of 35 (ill-chosen) words with an “AWL” of 1.74 syllables, one is instantly struck by the fact that it is grammatical garbage. Moreover, the key term “technical essence” is itself as vague and ambiguous an expression as one might invent. Consider a later and even lesser work, MIL-STD-831 (Test Reports, Preparation Of):
Purpose. The purpose of this standard is to foster uniformity in the portrayal of test results on items of materiel. They also provide for greater ease in the evaluation of the design suitability and performance capability of test items for use in new applications.
Physician, heal thyself! I leave the computation of syllables-per-word in this tortured passage to the curious reader.
Toward the end of MIL-M-38784A, rules are set forth by which a Government inspector may perform a “validation of readability” test on any given document. They require dividing the text into 100-word samples, counting the syllables and sentences in each sample, and applying simple arithmetical formulas. Nothing is said about whether the text makes sense. With moderate coaching, an ape could type up a “readable” Government manual. It appears that some already have.
These documents abound with passages such as “The area in which the setup is situated should be clear of obstructions in order to achieve free-space conditions,” (MIL-STD-461A). No amount of syllable counting can force such a linguistic deformity to join the English language.
Perhaps it is just as well that Government writings are, by and large, incoherent. Washington’s doings weigh heavily enough on us as it is; imagine our burden if they made sense as well!