How Politicians Deliberately Confuse Voters

An op-ed story that never ran and should have

Quick Backgrounder on Sentence length
Tests have shown that a sentence of eight words is very easy to read; of 11 words, easy; of 14 words, fairly easy; of 17 words, standard; of 21 words, fairly difficult; of 25 words, difficult; of 29 or more words, very difficult; so this sentence with 54 words, counting numbers, is ranked impossible.
Fairfax, Virginia Times

The Charter amendment questions:

No. 1. Single sentence, length 75 wordsergo, impossible to read
“Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to confirm Council’s power to enact provisions Council considers necessary or appropriate to implement a Minimum Wage and Benefits Ordinance, including, but not limited to, provisions mandating that minimum wage and benefits requirements be passed along to subcontractors on City contracts and subrecipients of City financial assistance, and provisions authorizing the granting and revocation of waivers, with debarment as a potential penalty for violation of such provisions?”

No. 2. Single sentence, length 66 wordsergo, impossible to read
“Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended so that effective January 1, 2016, an elected official of the City may become a candidate for nomination or election to a different public office without first resigning from his or her current office, the same as state and federal elected officials, but may not run for re-election to his or her current office in the same election?”

No. 3. Single sentence, length 75 wordsergo, impossible to read
“Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to provide that Council approval is required for certain contracts for one year or less for the purpose of providing legal representation and related services for indigent persons, including but not limited to parents and children who are subjects of dependency proceedings; criminal defendants; persons in juvenile justice proceedings; persons involved in behavioral health proceedings; and indigent persons involved in other proceedings where legal representation is required?”

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

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  • Peter Rosenwald

    Dare I say it again? [5 words]

    With increasing velocity we are slipping down a slope to total illiteracy, a linguistic Hades in which the only language will be tweets. [23 words]

    If followed to its natural conclusion, your admirable caution to avoid long sentences just because the 45% to 50% of the dummies out there will not understand them takes us further towards the land of tweets. [36 words]

    The trouble with those inane Charter Amendment Questions is, to repeat an old saw – ‘it is not the size, its the quality that matters’, that they were obviously composed by a committee including but not limited to incompetent lawyers for whom ‘quality of content’ was not a defining factor. [49 words: getting to the edge]

    Incidentally, despite a good ivy league degree in English, I had to look up ‘Debarment’ being unfamiliar to me . [19 words] I felt better when I saw this in the look-up: "Debarment matters are unique and unfamilar (sic) to most in both government and private sectors. Even a business or criminal defense attorney can lack understanding." [35 words].

    However infuriating, our job should be clear and illuminating writing, not caving in to the law of the lowest common dumbnominator. [21 words]

  • Tim Orr

    Once, I was sitting in a script meeting for a video I was to produce. The client thought it would be a good idea to have its inside counsel write the script. I told the assembled group that the script was incomprehensible. The attorney who had written it slammed his fist on the table and shouted, "We can’t sacrifice accuracy for the sake of clarity!" Several people started laughing. The attorney was outraged, and demanded to know what was so funny.

  • David

    It looks like the Inquirer dropped its op-ed page last fall – to the editor’s credit, he fought the change but ultimately was outranked. Here’s an article discussing the change:
    What a sad state of affairs this is…

  • Peg Shafer

    The first one is a pisser.
    Obviously lawyers obfuscating.


  • Kathleen Poole

    Just vote no. How hard can that be?

  • Donnie Bryant


    (Side note: some business websites aren’t much better when it comes to readability. Of course, you already knew that.)

  • cfxiam

    Couldn’t agree more. Writing is a form of communication. So, communicate clearly.

  • Debs

    Quite honestly, Denny, you’ve hit the nail on the head!!! [10 words]
    Government is so far into our homes and lives working diligently to "dumb down" the very citizens who vote them into office! [22 words]
    They should be ashamed of themselves. [6 powerful words!!]
    Sentence structure should be, at the very least, decipherable and as we know, using vague language such as "council considers necessary", and "potential" anything opens the door to more government empowerment! [31 words]
    With that said, I do not have either law degree or PhD, however, after re-reading and dissecting each of the three questions, which took me almost 15 minutes, all should be a "No" answer. [ah-ha 34 words!]
    Politics and politicians…wish just once they would truly and honestly work diligently for the common good! [16 words]
    Last but not least, as authors we know it’s not HOW MANY words are used; its HOW they are used that matters! [22 words]
    Thank you for letting me vent! [6 more powerful words!!]
    A grand total of 147 words used in 8 sentences; averaging 18 words per sentence. Not bad! 😉