Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hemingway is wrong!

I always pride myself on my ability to tell a lot about a person by just listening to him or reading what he writes and when I come across a person who assiduously avoids the relative pronoun "which", I know immediately that he has been paying too much heed to his grammar checker. It does not matter what word programming software you use; these days, they all come bundled with some programme that purports to spot spelling errors and grammatical mistakes.

I used to think only ninnies used a grammar checker in a word programming software and since ninnies did not number among my friends, nobody I knew used a grammar checker but then, as time went on, I began to meet more and more people who exhibited grammar-checker symptoms in their speech and writing. While I condemn the grammar checker as a programme fit only for dolts and it's designed to make a dolt even more doltish, I must say I find the spelling checker in a word programming software quite useful. A reading of my old hand-written diary entries shows me that I didn't know how to spell "cappuccino" until I started to type my diary on the computer.

But let us be clear about one thing - no machine can teach you grammar and there are no exceptions. I initially titled this article "Who but a blockhead would use a grammar checker?" but I changed the title so as not to sound offensive but honestly, who but a blockhead would use a grammar checker? I admit there are people who just cannot write a single sentence without making some grammatical mistake and if you have read some of my previous articles in this list, you will see that some of Singapore's English language experts are included in this group of linguistically challenged people. My advice to these people is simply to go ahead and write in another language. Nobody puts a gun to your head to force you to write in English.

Yesterday, there was an article on Netted about an app created by two men in their early 20s which they called Hemingway. It's an app that claims to "make your writing bold and clear". According to Netted, the app "makes language tight, clear, and free of unnecessary complexity and obfuscation (like adverbs, passive voice, and words like "obfuscation")." I find that puzzling. How can one consider adverbs and the passive voice an obfuscation? The English language is so much richer because of its adverbs and the passive voice. Writers who rail against the passive voice have been shown to use it quite often and to good effect in their works. But objection to the use of adverbs is ridiculous. An adverb embellishes the verb and gives further information to it the way an adjective does to a noun.

The New Yorker has an interesting article about Ernest Hemingway himself and about this silly app. What I find appalling about the app is it seems to take great pains to simplify a text to such an extent that it can be understood by a young child. But that is not, and it should not be, the motive of any good writer unless he is a writer of children's books. Simplicity may be necessary if you are talking to a young child or if you are addressing a village idiot but too much simplicity can only make a piece of writing inelegant and sometimes ludicrously so. No reader wants to feel like he's the village idiot you are addressing.

This app will probably find the works of all the greatest Nobel laureates for literature too obfuscatory and confusing.  Let's be realistic here. Ernest Hemingway is not the greatest English writer. He's only great because he's an American writer and there are so few good writers in America that when you come across a decent writer there, you toss the confetti and dance in jubilation. If Hemingway were born in India where all the greatest writers seem to come from these days, he'd be selling postcards outside the Taj Mahal.

I don't want to belittle Hemingway the novelist. I've read most of his novels although I must say I only read him because my literature teacher was a Hemingway fan and she'd set the unseen prose questions from an excerpt of a Hemingway novel. I confess I did enjoy reading Hemingway who of course ranks much higher than any other American novelists except Henry James who doesn't really count as an American. Hemingway's simplicity of style was a unique voice which exuded all the masculine machismo which the effete literati of the day severely lacked. The novelty went well with the general public.

But it's the height of folly to choose Hemingway as the role model for today's writing style. Of course this will appeal to anyone who doesn't think very much or who finds the coarse mutterings of a cave-dwelling savage attractive and elegant. It will appeal to those who already find the average commonplace sentence difficult to digest and who are unable to construct a single sentence that isn't riddled with grammatical errors.

And what about the grammatical errors of Hemingway the writer?  Just read that New Yorker article and you will see that the writer whom the app purports to emulate couldn't even write grammatically faultless sentences. And if you can't spot the errors, you really need to delete the Hemingway app and disable your grammar checker for a start.

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