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A Reason We Speak Insurance – It's What We Read

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I think I get it now. Everything is starting to make more sense than ever before. Sorry, maybe I should catch you up on my thoughts. I’ve been wondering why it is so hard to read insurance policies. And why we insurance people find it so hard to translate back and forth between insurance and our heart languages.

Let me illustrate my point. I’ll use two insurance policies and two books.

The first policy that we will look at was written by Chenango County Mutual Insurance Company. It’s a fire policy for a home, written in 1860.

In case of fire, or of loss or damage, of exposure of loss or damage merely, it shall be the duty of the insured to use their best endeavours for saving and preserving the property.

This Company will be liable for fire by lightning, but not for any loss or damage by fire happening by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, or civil commotion, or of any military or usurped power.

The words might look a little different, but the ideas have carried forward into modern insurance policies. Let’s look at some similar policy language from a current homeowners’ (HO-3) policy.

  1. Duties After Loss

In case of a loss to covered property, we have no duty to provide coverage under this policy if the failure to comply with the following duties is prejudicial to us…

  1. Protect the property from further damage. If repairs to the property are required, you must:
  2. Make reasonable and necessary repairs to protect the property; and
  3. Keep an accurate record of repair expenses;


  1. We do not insure for loss caused directly or indirectly by any of the following…
  2. War

War includes the following and any consequence of any of the following:

  1. Undeclared war, civil war, insurrection, rebellion or revolution;
  2. Warlike act by a military force or military personnel; or
  3. Destruction, seizure or us for a military purpose.

Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

The first excerpt came from a policy that was written well before any insurance policy readability statute was written or passed anywhere in the US. Oddly, that policy was in effect during most of the Civil War. I wonder if they had to apply that war exclusion. Back to the point, a lot has changed over time. But the general meaning behind both policy conditions remains the same after over 150 years.

The first condition tells the policyholder to try and protect their property the best way they can. The second excludes loss due to war. Both modern examples use more words than the 1860 version. But they mean essentially the same thing. We’re not here to parse policy language today as such. We are trying to figure out why insurance people have trouble translating insurance into English. We note the differences in policy language just to illustrate that insurance has had it’s own language for a long time.

To see some of those differences, I want to quote a book from the same period as the 1860 policy and a book that was written within the last few years. Our first quote is from The Life of Patrick Henry by William Wirt, published in 1857.

Toward the close of the session, an incident occurred of a character so extraordinary as to deserve particular notice. The question of adoption or rejection was now approaching. The decision was still uncertain, and every mind and every heart was filled with anxiety. Mr. Henry partook most deeply of this feeling; and while engaged, as it were in his last effort, availed himself of the strong sensations which he knew to pervade the house, and made an appeal to it which, in point of sublimity, has never been surpasses in any age of country of the world.

In case you’re wondering, that excerpt was four sentences of a paragraph that continues for several sentences more. Let’s shift and look at a quote from Platform by Michael Hyatt.

You’ve likely never heard of me prior to picking up this book, unless you are somehow connected with publishing or you follow my blog. After all, I’m not a celebrity, and I don’t have a talk show on cable TV, nor have I recorded a number one Billboard hit, or run for – or held – public office. (Thank goodness.)

That was a whole paragraph from a work published in 2012. Neither of us has to be an English major to figure out which is easier to read. In the 1800’s people wrote long, complex sentences. Today, we write in short sentences. In 1860, they used expressive language, and the more words the better, it seems. Today, if you don’t keep your email to three lines or less, most of us aren’t reading it.

I have mentioned insurance policy readability requirements. Many states have passed some version of the NAIC Policy Simplification law, which establishes readability guidelines for insurance policies. These guidelines are based on the Flesch Readability Score. In short, the Flesch Readability Score is a calculation based on the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. If you want to know how to do the calculation, you can find it here.

Scores run from 0 to 100, with 100 being very easy reading and 0 being hard. According to Rudolf Flesch (inventor of the scale), comics score 92 while the Harvard Law Review scores 32. The NAIC model law requires an insurance policy to score 40 or higher. The states that I reviewed ranged 40-50, but I didn’t look up all states’ laws.

The NAIC model law requires that policies of less than 10,000 words (yeah, 10,000!) should be analyzed for readability as a whole. Policies with more than 10,000 words should be analyzed with two 100-word passages per page. I used a passage of 200 words on the 1860 policy.

It’s readability score? 28.8.

What about the segment of the modern HO-3? 55.1

We’re not done. Be patient. Let’s score the two passages from the two books before we move on, and yes, I’ll expand both quotes to be big enough to fit the NAIC requirement of at least 100 words, which for the Patrick Henry book is about one paragraph.

The Life of Patrick Henry quote? 46.3

Platform quote? 77.6

To put these numbers into perspective, Flesch assigns grade levels to his scoring system. How do our excerpts rate?

  • 1860 fire policy – 28.8 (college graduate)
  • The Life of Patrick Henry – 46.3 (college student)
  • Modern HO-3 – 55.1 (high school student)
  • Platform – 77.6 (7th grade student)

The problem might be that all we read are insurance policies, insurance books, the CPCU study materials, and the manuals for the state licensing exam. None of those are written the way that the blogs and popular business books are written these days.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that we’re that much smarter than other people, especially our customers. It’s that we are so used to reading policies. We are used to how the policies are laid out. We are used to reading insurance articles and books that tend to read like policies. The classes we attend tell us about policies. The books that we read are written to explain insurance concepts in a deep way. I know, I’m studying for CPCU 520.

My recommendation? Read a book. Read a normal book. Get your head out of the complicated world of insurance. Read a blog that’s written in plain English. Use plain English when you’re talking to people that aren’t insurance people. You could even use plain English when you talk to insurance people, too.

PS – This post’s readability score is 62.2. I’m right in the eighth grade range today.

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