A letter to the editor in the August 18 Wall Street Journal, commenting on an article about Winston Churchill’s speaking skills, recalled a class the author had taken long ago on the art of writing:
The teacher had a formula for counting word syllables and sentence length which he called the “Gunning fog index,” an index from one to 12 which he found correlated very well with the ability of 1st to 12th graders to understand the text he or she was reading. He analyzed Winston Churchill's speeches and found that in all his writings, the fog index was about six. Everything Winston Churchill wrote or spoke could be understood by sixth graders. No wonder he was so great.
Now compare that with the kind of writing that is unfortunately common in our universities today: “Bad Writing, Universities, and Zionism.” Bad writing that tries to mask bad thinking with big words and pompous prose.
UPDATE: The following is from the remarkable comment to this post by Mannie Sherberg:
Churchill, like all great speakers, understood the power of monosyllables. So did Lincoln. In what is arguably the greatest American political speech -- the Second Inaugural -- Lincoln delivered a message of such profundity that we have not yet plumbed all its meanings. He did this in only 700 words -- four paragraphs. Of the 700 words, 505 are words of one syllable (and 122 contain only two syllables).
Lincoln, of course, knew his American history -- and he was aware that one of the most memorable sentences ever spoken by an American statesman, Patrick Henry's "I know not what course others make take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death," contained only one word longer than one syllable. Churchill, obviously, knew this too.
Take the key paragraph in his famous speech of June 1940 (called by some "England's Darkest Hour" speech); it is really one long succession of common English words, most of them monosyllables: "We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Notice how the short words create a pounding effect -- like the sound of marching feet. Churchill understood, perhaps better than any other speaker of our time, that language is (or should be) music -- and that great rhetoric can stir emotions just as great music can. He knew how much the music of English depends on its rhythms, its cadences, its beat and flow and meter. And he understood how all of this required the adroit use of short words easily understood.
Of course, Churchill was, before anything else, a clear thinker. From that … everything else flows.