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Published June 05 2012

North Dakota, Minnesota delegations use simple speech, study shows

FARGO - When it comes to congressional speeches, representatives from Minnesota and North Dakota tend to use simpler language than their colleagues on Capitol Hill.

A recent study from the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation says North Dakota’s and Minnesota’s delegations speak using lower grade-level vocabulary than most other members of Congress but still above the national average.

Sunlight Foundation researchers analyzed words in the Congressional Record and used a formula looking at complex speech patterns – such as larger words and longer sentences – to derive a grade level for each member of Congress.

Out of Minnesota and North Dakota, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., had the highest score for speeches given during the current session of Congress.

Despite speaking at an 11th-grade level, though, Klobuchar still fell in the bottom half of Congress as a whole.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., had the highest grade level out of the 530 members under review.

The study found Lungren speaks at the 20th-grade level, which would be the equivalent of a doctorate.

Most Americans read between an eighth- and ninth-grade level, the study says.

As a point of reference, according to the Sunlight Foundation: the U.S. Constitution is written at almost an 18th-grade level; the Declaration of Independence is written at a 15th-grade level; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech is just above the ninth-grade level.

Like Klobuchar, North Dakota’s and Minnesota’s other representatives tend to speak at the level of a high-schooler.

Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., speaks at a high 10th-grade level, while Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn.; Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; and John Hoeven, R-N.D., all scored at the ninth-grade level.

Of the states’ delegations, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson had the lowest-speaking grade level for this session of Congress: seventh grade.

However, that number is deceptive when considering his 23-year stint in Congress, the study indicates.

Over Peterson’s career, the Sunlight Foundation found he averages speaking at a 10th-grade level.

No other Minnesota or North Dakota member had significantly different grades for this session compared with their

full careers.

But the recent numbers reflect a changing trend in congressional conversation.

For at least seven years, members of Congress have increasingly used more basic language that targets lower grade-level comprehension, senior Sunlight fellow Lee Drutman wrote in his report.

“Whether you see it as plain speak or you see it as dumbing down, the data are clear: The overall complexity of speech in the Congressional Record has dropped,” Drutman said.

Drutman added that the data found the most politically extreme members of Congress were typically associated with the simplest speech patterns.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541