by Matthew McEver
Have you heard about the new Hemingway App? Inspired by an abundance of poor writing in the business world, brothers Adam and Ben Long developed an online editing tool that will analyze your text, flag problems in your prose, make your writing “bold and clear.”
Here’s the rub: the app dislikes anything written above a tenth grade reading level. The algorithm flags passive voice, adverbs, polysyllabic words, and complex sentence structure. Pasting in my own text, the app judged everything I’ve written to this point as “hard to read.”
The New Yorker had some fun with this invention, submitting Hemingway’s own writing to the online editor. Alas, according to the Hemingway App, the bullfighting scenes from The Sun Also Rises should be rewritten. The app flagged the following excerpt for its passive voice and extraneous adverbs.
Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time.
I remember Marlin Barton once saying, “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules,” which is what Hemingway does in the cited passage. No question, when severed from a larger body of text, this passage is grammatically awkward. In context, though, there’s something exquisite and unsettling in the wording. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker says that the beauty in that phrase, “all that was faked turned bad,” feels like an elegy, appropriate for this novel. “Emotional uncertainty,” Crouch calls it. Of course, “quietly” and “calmly” are effective because we don’t associate calmness and quietness with bullfighting.
Great writers have a flair for knowing how and when to break the rules. One of my favorite examples is the juxtaposition of two run-on sentences in the third chapter of A Farewell to Arms.
I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear
and cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the
peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone
to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you
needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that
was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with
you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again
unknowing and not caring in the night, sure this was all and all and all and not caring.
You’d never get away with this winding verse in Comp 101. Hemingway, who knows what a run-on sentence is, gets away with it because the writing style earns its place. The run-on sentences not only break the rhythm of the prose; they also tell me something about the narrator. Given the erratic nature of these sentences, I have no doubt that our narrator is spiritually lost.
Grammatical evils—passive voice, adverbs, winding verse—have their place in creative writing when gracefully executed and thematically appropriate. Breaking the rules is fine, but only if you do so with a higher purpose. And like many aspects of the writing life, possessing a knack for such things, knowing when and how to break the rules, is mastered through ceaseless practice until it becomes second nature. There are no shortcuts, and there is no online tool that will turn your work into A Farewell to Arms.