29 June 2010

Here's an example of how newspaper writing has changed

This weekend my wife handed me a section of the local Sunday paper (Wisconsin State Journal), and asked me to read an article.  It was from a section entitled "What We Said... 145 Years Ago," reproducing an editorial from the paper in 1865.  It's not available to link to on the 'net, so I'll reproduce it here in its entirety.  Below a photo of two black Civil War soldiers was this text:

"Recognizing manood and loyalty, not color"

"There are strong grounds for doubting the wisdom of conferring the right of suffrage at once and indiscriminately upon the negroes in the South; there are still stronger grounds, in our opinion, for doubting the wisdom of conferring the right of suffrage upon a people who have but just ceased waging internecine war against the Republic, and who are still full of animosity and bitterness.

There is no doubt but the negroes are as well if not be better fitted to vote, loyalty as well as intelligence being taken into account, as the whites, but a period of probation, during which order may be restored and some degree of intelligence and sound sentiment diffused, will work no hardship to either class, and will conduce to the best interests of the nation, and its permanent peace and prosperity.

When the Southern States reappear by their representatives in the National Legislature, we trust it will be as free States, recognizing manhood and loyalty, not color, as the basis of suffrage."

--Wisconsin State Journal editorial, June 27, 1865

The sentiment of the article is reasonably progressive for the time, but what struck both of us was the grammar, the vocabulary, and the complex sentence structure.  Three sentences averaging 56 words each.  The "reading level" for that editorial must be quite high; I would doubt that anything approaching that degree of sophistication would be published in any newspaper nowadays.


  1. Grade level: 19.26
    Reading ease level: 31.77

  2. @Con--Where did the numbers come from, please.

    I know three people who could easily read and comprehend this article.

  3. A hat tip to Con for doing what I was in too much of a rush to do.

    bigjohn, there are a number of readability indexes (just look up "readabiity" in Wikipedia).

    I just ran a Gunning fog index on those paragraphs and got an index of 21.56.

    And using the tool at this page -


    it yielded a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 17.7.

  4. @bigjohn756: I used a Flesch-Kincaid program.
    @'stan: If I tipped my hat to you for every great post I'd have a tatty hat!

  5. I wonder, back in the day when people conversed with each other in this fashion, if such complex sentences flowed from their tongues as their thoughts were forming or if they gave pause to construct their sentences mentally before beginning.

  6. It reminds me of a line from Thomas Sowell:

    A recently reprinted memoir by Frederick Douglass has footnotes explaining what words like 'arraigned,' 'curried' and 'exculpate' meant, and explaining who Job was. In other words, this man who was born a slave and never went to school educated himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today's expensively under-educated generation.

  7. http://www.mediaite.com/online/stephen-colbert-simplifies-pres-obama-oval-office-speech-see-spot-spread/

    This is Corbetts take on it, in particular regarding Obamas Oral Orifice speech about the oil spill.

    I ran the editorial through this link and got different numbers.


    Approximate representation of the U.S. grade level needed to comprehend the text :
    Coleman Liau index : 12.22
    Flesh Kincaid Grade level : 25.95
    ARI (Automated Readability Index) : 30.39
    SMOG : 18.81

  8. Sorry, meant Colbert.
    Although I am a Corbett fan also;)

  9. Go read it again - the editorial indicates that the white southerners were disloyal, but intelligent, while the Negroes were loyal but not-intelligent - hence the editorial writer thought (on the whole) that the blacks should be allowed to vote but not the whites.

    It's no wonder black people hate us.


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