The Conversational Style

By Nirmaldasan

—This article appeared in the July-September 2012 issue of Vidura, a quarterly journal of the Press Institute of India —

The most readable feature stories in magazines and newspapers are written in the conversational style. Plain English experts have laid much emphasis on the write-the-way-you-talk principle. In How To Take The Fog Out Of Writing, Robert Gunning says: “A conversational tone is one of the best avenues to good writing.” The choice of words, the syntax and the human voice constitute the conversational style.

This style is easy to achieve on radio and television. In The Art Of Plain Talk, Rudolf Flesch writes: “When we are talking, of course, we don’t use any punctuation marks. We use a system of shorter or longer pauses between words to join or separate our ideas, and we raise or lower our voice to make things sound emphatic or casual. In other words, we make ourselves understood not only by words but also by pauses and by stress or pitch.”      

But how to reproduce the conversational tone in print? Flesch has an answer: “Punctuation gets pauses and stress (but not pitch) on paper.” His punctuation system takes care of normal pause, shorter pause and longer pause between words and between sentences. His system also indicates whether utterances have normal stress or emphasis or no stress. Let us take a brief look at pause and stress:


Shorter pause between words: use hyphen (eg. If you say no-work no-pay, then I say no- pay no-work.)

Shorter pause between sentences: use semi-colon (eg. I came; I saw; I conquered.) or colon (eg. Three things I like most: chess, poetry and mathematics.)

Normal pause between words: use usual spacing (eg. I came and saw and conquered.)

Normal pause between sentences:  use the full stop (eg. I came. I saw. I conquered.)

Longer pause between words: use em-dash (eg. The greatest symbol — zero.)

Longer pause between sentences: use a new paragraph


No stress: use parenthesis ( )

Normal stress: use the usual type of upright letters  

Emphasis: use italics or bold type

Here are some other considerations for achieving a conversational style:

* Use words that are short and easy to say (monosyllables or disyllables)

* Use words that are familiar to the average reader

* Use contractions such as I’ve, isn’t, haven’t and aren’t

* Use words that are concrete, which refer to people and things

* Use the active voice instead of the passive

* Use questions and exclamations wherever appropriate

Human Interest Measure (HIM)

Flesch developed a formula called Human Interest Score (Scale: 0 to 100) based on two variables: personal words and personal sentences. The greater the score, the greater the human interest. Flesch also used a five-point scale to describe the level of human interest in a feature story. He measured science magazines (dull), trade publications (mildly interesting), digests (interesting), New Yorker (highly interesting) and fiction (dramatic).

His formula is complicated as it involves two factors 3.635 and 0.314. Those who are fond of decimals may read Flesch’s original article of 1948 titled ‘A New Readability Yardstick’ in William H. Dubay’s book Unlocking Language.

Here I wish to present a useful simplification of his formula. Let us call it HIM (human interest measure). The formula involves the number of personal references (pr) in 100 words and the number of conversational sentences (cs) in 10 sentences.

Personal references are what Flesch calls ‘personal words’: “(a) All first-, second-, and third-person pronouns except the neuter pronouns it, its, itself, and they, them, their, theirs, themselves if referring to things rather than people, (b) All words that have masculine or feminine natural gender, e.g. Jones, Mary, father, sister, iceman, actress. Do not count common-gender words like teacher, doctor, employee, assistant, spouse.      Count singular and plural forms, (c) The group of words people (with the plural verb) and     folks.”

Conversational sentences are (a) utterances within quotes or indirect speech (b) imperative sentences (c) interjections and (d) sentence fragments (eg. With a dagger.) whose meaning depend on their previous sentences (eg. How did Brutus kill Caesar?)

The formula is simple: HIM = pr + cs

Scale: 0 to 3 (dull); 4 to 6 (mildly interesting); 7 to 13 (interesting); 14 to 19 (highly interesting); and 20+ (dramatic).

Rule of thumb

In every 10 sentences, let there be at least two conversational sentences; and in every 100 words, at least 7 personal references.

Now for a final quote from Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish: “All the stories we heard as children were full of dialogue. We heard what the fox said to persuade the tiger to re-enter the cage the Brahmin had freed it from, and what the tiger said to justify his decision to gobble his benefactor. We all remember what the ants told the grasshopper, who’d only fiddled the whole summer, while they’d worked to save food for the winter. Dialogue and description made those tales live — and often, dialogue was the more important device.”


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