February 21, 2013

Writing Sample Analyzer FAQ

In preparation for my re-entering the work force (shameless self plug – I’m job seeking!) I closed down some of my old legacy sites that I’ve been keeping around for posterity. One of which was my consulting site, bluecentauri.com. Even though I haven’t updated it in years, the tools were still in use, especially the Writing Sample Readability Analyzer. So I moved it to my resume website, sarahktyler.com.

Since I’m getting a ton of emails about it lately, I thought I’d answer some of the frequently asked questions.

How does your analyzer work?

The analyzer uses the Flesch, Fog and Flesch-Kincaid metrics to predict reading ease. Each approximation makes the basic assumption that longer sentences are harder to read than shorter sentences, and words with more syllables are harder to read than words with less syllables. Although the underlying principle is the same, each metric is calculated slightly differently.

FleschScore = 206.835 − (1.015 × AverageSentenceLength) − (84.6 × AverageNumSyllablesPerWord)

FogScale = 0.4 x (AverageSentenceLength + PercentageOfWordsWithThreeOrMoreSyllables)

FleschKincadeScore = 0.38 x AverageSentenceLength + 11.8 x AverageNumSyllablesPerWord – 15.59

I’ve used your analyzer and another analyzer and gotten different results, why is that?

The Flesch, Fog, and Flesch-Kincaid are well defined metrics. If another system is reporting a different score for the same metric, then the input variables (either number of sentences, or number of syllables per word) must be calculated differently.

It is surprisingly not as straight forward to calculate sentence boundaries as it seems. As humans, we can identify when a sentence ends pretty easily. Since the computer can’t really parse or understand the sentence**, it can only make an educated guess based on clues like punctuation and capitalization. But not all punctuation (think abbreviations) end sentences, and not all sentences are ended with punctuation. This is especially true online were sentences are often not well formed.

The same goes for computing the number of syllables in a word. It may seem simple to just create a list of syllables per word, but language is infinite and constantly evolving. Such a list is not possible. Pronunciation (and the number of syllables) can differ in different parts of the world. Additionally, heteronyms words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciation, can have different number of syllables. The word ‘learned’ as the past tense of the verb ‘to learn’ is one syllable, but ‘learned’ the adjective to describe someone with scholastic achievement is two. Any method to calculate the number syllables per word will involve some heuristics.

The differences in calculating sentence length and the number of syllables will tend to be more noticeable on shorter samples, rather than longer. Even so, while there may be differences between different analyzers, the differences should be relatively small.

** There is an active area of research in natural language processing which tries to automatically parse and understand sentences.

Which analyzer is the most ‘accurate’?

There are two types of ‘accurate’ we can consider: which analyzer comes closer to the true Flesch, Fog and Flesch-Kincaide metrics, and which one better predicts reading ease. Keep in mind that each metric is just a heuristic based on an assumption that is often true, but not always. For example ‘kiln‘ is one syllable, but harder than the simple, three syllable word ‘together’. Depending on the kind of text you are analyzing, you may find one method or score works better for your application than another.

Let’s consider two Analyzers, one with a very good sentence boundary detection, Analyzer A, and one with a very good syllable per word calculator, Analyzer B. If you were analyzing writing samples from elementary school children, you may prefer A. That’s because young children may not write grammatically correct sentences and typically don’t have a rich vocabulary, so a more complex syllable per word calculator wouldn’t buy you much whereas a better sentence boundary detector may be necessary. On the other hand, if you were analyzing scientific journal articles, you may prefer B.

My suggestion is to use both analyzers to get a feel of which one is better for you and your task.

Will you share the code?

I have in the past, but only for extra special cases.

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  1. Good morning Sarah.

    Can we legally use your Readability Analyzer @ http://sarahtyler.com without your permission?

    Best regards,
    Luann K. Benetti

    • Hi Luann,

      My apologies for the delay in my response. I did not see your comment until now. Yes, everyone is free to use my readability analyzer! I hope you find it useful.


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