Hemingway app judges writing—badly

Oh well, another technical failure: the inability of computer programs to judge the quality of writing.

The program at issue is the Hemingway App, which has apparently achieved some renown for being able to parse writing and suss out the awkwardness, the passive voices, the over-use of adverbs, and so on.  It’s supposed to help you learn to write better.

Now, however, it’s become notorious, for the people at Language Log have actually run Hemingway’s prose through the Hemingway program. And how does Papa rate? Mediocre at best: a passage from “My Old Man” was rated “bad,” while passages from “The Old Man and the Sea” (a nice starting paragraph) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” were judged just “OK.” Apparently Hemingway wasn’t such a good prose stylist, at least according to his eponymous app.

You can check either your own writing or that of others. Just go to the site, either cut the prose on the page or paste your own over it. It should evaluate you (grade level, quality of writing, and types of errors) as you write, or you can hit “write” if that doesn’t work to see how it fares.

I decided to enter two of my favorite pieces of English prose to see how they rated. The first was the lovely opening of Out of Africa by Isak Dinisen (Karen Blixen):

  I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold. The geographical position and the height Of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet. like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt. like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like full-rigged ships with their sails furled, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtles; in some places the scent was so strong that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found or plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs – only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

The verdict: just OK. The analysis is below.

Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 9.34.38 AM Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 9.35.09 AM Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 9.35.38 AM

The rating:Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 9.35.53 AM

Then I put in the wonderful ending of The Great Gatsby:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Again, just OK:

Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 9.57.12 AM


Finally, reader Grania, who found this article, inserted some technical prose she found at her own job. It’s dreadful, but look how it was rated—Good!

If you can’t read the prose below, it says:

The Technical team is still working on resolving the issue, to reinstate the rejected BRBs back to the original status.

Attached is the list of BRBs that got Rejected erroneously. Please do not attempt to action on any of these BRBs until further recommendation from us.

The rating: GOOD, despite the capitalization of “rejected” and the “please do not attempt to action.”

hemingwaygood

My conclusion: this app is worthless. I dare not insert what I think is the most beautiful prose ever written in English: the last few paragraphs of James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

What a world!

But if this depresses you, cheer up with this other lovely passage from Out of Africa:

If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?

I won’t get that one rated, either.

Oh, if you have a favorite prose passage in English, let us know below. Paste it in, but only if it’s two paragraphs or fewer.  I’m always on the lookout for luscious prose.

 

129 Comments

  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    The other day The American Scholar asked readers for some of their favorite sentences. Here’s the opening of “Mr. Summer’s Story” by Patrick Suskind (I wonder how it would fare with this app):

    In the days when I was still climbing trees—long, long ago, years, decades ago, I stood only a tad three-foot-three, wore size-eleven shoes, and was so light I could fly—no, I’m not lying, I really could fly back then—or at least almost, or let’s say it would actually have been within my power to fly in those days, if only I had truly wanted to and had tried really hard, because . . . I can recall very clearly that one time I came within an inch of flying, it was in autumn, my first year in school, I was on my way home, and the wind was blowing so strong that even without spreading my arms, I could lean way forward against it like a ski-jumper, or farther even, without falling over . . . and when I ran against the wind, down across the meadows of School Hill—our school, you see, was on a little hill outside the village—just by pushing myself off the least bit and spreading my arms wide, the wind lifted me up, and without trying I could leap five, ten feet high and bound forward thirty, forty feet—well, maybe not quite that far and not quite that high, what difference does it make!—but at least I almost flew, and if I had unbuttoned my coat and held it together tight in both hands, spreading it like wings, why, the wind would have lifted me off for good, and easy as anything I could have sailed off School Hill, out across the valley to the woods and down to the lake, where our house was, and to the boundless amazement of my father, my mother, my sister, and my brother, who where all much too old and too heavy by then to fly, I would have traced an elegant curve above our yard and then floated out over the lake, almost to the far shore, and drifted gently at last back home, just in time for lunch.

    • Nathan
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      Oh wow. It got a score of 53. Really really bad.

  2. Kevin
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Egad. What would it make of Faulkner?

  3. Nathan
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    That app hates the fuck out of Lovecraft.

    • Nathan
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is doing pretty good.

  4. Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I just plugged in the Declaration of Independence. The app really, really doesn’t like it.

    b&

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Here is a case where science (computer algorithm) is NOMA. Thank goodness.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      Seems to me the problem is that it is rather rigid in its grading criteria.

      • Scott_In_OH
        Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        And that its grading criteria are ridiculous. E.g., limit your use of adverbs, but it’s totally fine to use an infinitive where you should have used a noun.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          I wonder what it would have thought of Churchill’s “This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put”?

  6. Jack Wilson
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Since Africa has come up several times in this post, I’ll always consider The Snows of Kilimanjaro one of, if not the most, incredible piece of literature ever written.

    Also just read the last paragraph of The Dead. Incredible.

  7. Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Most likely, the capitalisation of Rejected is not a grammatical error per se but rather technical jargon, referring to a state in a technical issue tracker. Thus, it’s just shorthand for “Attached is the list of BRBs that got [filed under the category labelled] Rejected erroneously.”

    • Darkwhite
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

      The first use of ‘rejected’, referring to the exact same quality, is uncapitalized.

  8. estraven
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Oh goodness, what would this app make of Virginia Woolf?

    • Posted April 7, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Oh dear, I’ve read all of VW’s books. I think it would be a very poor rating, despite her awesome writings.

  9. Robert Seidel
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    The second paragraph from the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

    The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

  10. Gareth Price
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I like the opening paragraph of “Saturday” by Ian McEwan.

    Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet. It’s not clear to him when exactly he became conscious, nor does it seem relevant. He’s never done such a thing before, but he isn’t alarmed or even faintly surprised, for the movement is easy, and pleasurable in his limbs, and his back and
    legs feel unusually strong. He stands there, naked by the bed – he always sleeps naked – feeling his full height, aware of his wife’s patient breathing and of the wintry bedroom air
    on his skin. That too is a pleasurable sensation. His bedside clock shows three forty. He has no idea what he’s doing out of bed: he has no need to relieve himself, nor is he disturbed by a dream or some element of the day before, or even by the state of the world. It’s as if, standing there in the darkness,
    he’s materialised out of nothing, fully formed, unencumbered. He doesn’t feel tired, despite the hour or his recent labours, nor is his conscience troubled by any recent case. In fact, he’s alert and empty-headed and inexplicably elated. With no decision made, no motivation at all, he begins to move towards the nearest of the three bedroom windows
    and experiences such ease and lightness in his tread that he suspects at once he’s dreaming or sleepwalking. If it is the case, he’ll be disappointed. Dreams don’t interest him; that
    this should be real is a richer possibility. And he’s entirely himself, he is certain of it, and he knows that sleep is behind
    him: to know the difference between it and waking, to know the boundaries, is the essence of sanity.

    • Isaac
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      There’s so much to choose from in McEwan. I think Saturday was in fact the first novel of his that I read, and the one that got me hooked. I can’t think of another 21st century novelist who can match his descriptive power, and the clarity and evocativeness of his prose.

      My example will be the first two paragraphs of Enduring Love, chapter three:

      By six that evening we were back home, in our kitchen, and everything looked the same-the railway clock above the door, Clarissa’s library of cookbooks, the flowery copperplate of a note left by the cleaning lady the day before. The unaltered array of my breakfast coffee cup and newspaper seemed blasphemous. While Clarissa carried her luggage into the bedroom, I cleared the table, opened the picnic wine, and set out two glasses. We sat facing each other and began.

      We hadn’t said much in the car. It had seemed enough to be coming though the traffic unharmed. Now it came out in a torrent. A postmortem, a reliving, a debriefing, the rehearsal of grief and the exorcism of terror. There was so much repetition that evening of the incidents, and of our perceptions, and of the very phrases and words we honed to accommodate them, that one could only assume that an element of ritual was in play, that these were not only descriptions but incantations also. There was comfort in reiteration, just as there was in the familiar weight of the wineglasses and in the grain of the deal table, which had once belonged to Clarissa’s great-grandmother. There were smooth shallow indentations in its surface near the knife-scarred edges, worn by elbows like ours, I always thought; many crises and deaths must have already been considered around this table.

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Sub

  12. Greg Esres
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    “Quality” is a vague term and in this case it has a number of very technical definitions that might not match our subjective interpretation of what quality means.

    I see this sort of analysis as merely a caution flag that the good writer can ignore with impunity; the same thing goes for Strunk and White, as well as any grammar reference.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      I got an “Ok” on the above paragraphs and they are apparently suitable for those reading at grade 15. Junior in college?

  13. eric
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I think I have a fundamental disagreement with any writing assessment which sees writing to a Grade-9 reading level as being better than writing to a higher reading level.

    Yeah sure, if you are writing for 15-year-olds, then by all means write to 9th grade level. But IMO that’s not a reading level that all and every document should aspire to, um, “reach” (more like ‘sink to’).

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      But, as you probably know, popular magazines tend to target the 9th grade reading level.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

        During a project I did last semester I was told to write my survey simply and plainly because the average American has about an 8th grade reading comprehension. I’m not so sure magazines aspire even aspire that high.

  14. Richard Bond
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I have always thought that “No man is an island…” is pretty good. On the other hand, I have never understood why Hemingway is so highly rated.

    • Posted March 31, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      I think Hemingway is great for three things: one novel (The Sun Also Rises), his short stories, perhaps the best things he wrote (viz., “Hills like White Elephants,” “Up in Michigan”) and for his memoir A Moveable Feast. The rest of his novels don’t inspire me.

      • Richard Bond
        Posted March 31, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        I must have only read the uninspiring stuff, but it does include what seem to be two of his best-known books: “The Old Man and the Sea” and “for Whom the Bell tolls”. I found them pretentious.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      “I undressed in one of the bath cabins, crossed the narrow line of beach and went into the water. I swam out, trying to swim through the rollers, but having to dive sometimes. Then in the quiet water I turned and floated. Floating I saw only sky, and felt the drop and lift of the swells. I swam back to the surf and coasted in, face down, on a big roller, then turned and swam, trying to keep in the trough and not have a wave break over me. It made me tired swimming in the trough, and I turned and swam out to the raft. The water was buoyant and cold. It felt as though you could never sink.”

      Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises

  15. Barney
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I found something it rated as ‘good’ – the first 2 paragraphs of ‘Brave New World‘ (which I picked because it was the first book that I ‘could not put down’). It says it’s Grade 6. The only thing it complains about is 2 adverbs (what has the writer got against adverbs?).

    The odd thing is that it thinks that text has 21 sentences, when it only has 8. I realised that the text as copied had some line breaks in, so I reformatted it to only have those after the paragraph. With that, it recognises there are only 8 sentences, but now rates it only as ‘OK’, and Grade 13. So it think artificially broken sentences are better than correct ones.

    It doesn’t complain about the lack of a verb in the first sentence, either (the second is ‘very hard to read’, but it doesn’t say if that’s because of no verb again, or just too many nouns in it or something). It’s worthless.

    I tried putting this post through it, and the result was ‘Good’, at Grade 8.

  16. Gareth Price
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    On a slight tangent, I once got an email entitled “Winter Postdoc Science Writing Course”.

    It was, obviously, about a science writing course and the email explained that, among other things, we would learn about constructions to avoid, such as noun stacks.

    I didn’t know what a noun stack was so I looked it up. It turns out that a classic example of a noun stack is “winter postdoc science writing course”!!

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      “noun stack ”

      Never heard of that either. Thanks!

  17. parnell
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Vladimir Nabokov from “Speak, Memory”

    “I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell. Overhead, above the black music of telegraph wires, a number of long, dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hung motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement; the whole thing was like some prodigious ovation in terms of color and form! It was dying, however, and everything else was darkening, too; but just above the horizon, in a lucid, turquoise space, beneath a black stratus, the eye found a vista that only a fool could mistake for the spare parts of this or any other sunset. It occupied a very small sector of the enormous sky and had the peculiar neatness of something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. There it lay in wait, a family of serene clouds in miniature, an accumulation of brilliant convolutions, anachronistic in their creaminess and extremely remote; remote but perfect in every detail; fantastically reduced but faultlessly shaped; my marvelous tomorrow ready to be delivered to me.”

    The app rated it grade 16 and ‘ok’ but if you mouse over the grade you get their explanation of readability and this conclusion: “Aim for a Grade Level less than 10 for bold, clear writing.”

  18. Newton's Bucket
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    The app judges Cormac McCarthy’s prose as good in spite of McCarthy’s disregard for grammar and punctuation. I don’t understand what this app has against adverbs either.

  19. Old Rasputin
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    It seems inconsistent. I tried pasting several swathes of my own writing (all written with similar intentions and within a few months of each other) and received grades ranging from 9 to 18. The 18 was for a half dozen paragraphs where I was describing a process that simply seemed to demand a lot of adverbs (17 in all). I understand that using too many adverbs can make prose clunky, but does it really make it inaccessible for high school students. Does this subject only get introduced at the college level now?

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      In hindsight, that “simply” above doesn’t need to be there. Maybe that’s where the program’s use lies: don’t take its ratings seriously, just use it as something to remind yourself of potential problems.

  20. Rick Graham
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Absolute agreement on Joyce’s The Dead.

    How about this passage from Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky:

    Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

  21. J Cook
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Back in the ’70’s I was fortunate enough to live in the Karen district of greater Nairobi and a thousand feet higher near the village of Kikuyu, close to the escarpment.
    Would that I could write as well as Karen Blixen to describe those times.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      “Would that I could write as well as Karen Blixen to describe those times.”

      And I find her unreadable, by me, anyway. I read for facts and not subjectivity. Her paragraph above contains almost no information, but a lot of words. I could shrink it down to maybe three sentences. :-)

      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted March 31, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Your comment illustrates the limited applicability of this app. We write and read for a variety of purposes, sometimes even in the same text, but the app apparently has a one size fits all approach.

        I quite liked the first passage quoted from Out of Africa, but if the whole book is like this, I too would find it unreadable.

        • jesse
          Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Regarding Out of Africa, sometimes books and stories are more enjoyable/appreciated when read out loud, and so if you can get it on audio CD you might really like it.

          I bring this up because I listened to a marvelous version on tape of Baryl Markham’s “West with the Night” and still remember some beautiful passages 20+ years later, which I doubt I would remember if I’d read it silently to myself. (Markham was a contemporary of Dinesen/Blixen).

          I was listening to “A Way with Words” on Public Radio the other day (U.S.), and Martha and Graham were talking about how it was only relatively recently in history that writings have been read silently by us humans’ that for most of history, stories were told orally. They were discussing whether it’s fair to say a person has “read” a book if they really listened to it on an audio recording.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

            I heard a great version of War of the Worlds (not the radio version) that read the book & the opening lines were terrific. This bit was delivered especially well:

            Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

            • jesse
              Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

              Even tho your WOTW wasn’t Orson Welles, all I can do is hear his voice when I read your copy of the paragraph : )

              I think different parts of the brain are used when hearing things than when looking at things (type on a page). I wonder if audio could even considered music, which uses specific parts in the brain. I’m sure there are gobs of studies on that.

              I “read” The DaVinci Code via audio CD and enjoyed it very much.

              Interesting thing is that many yrs. after I’d listened to West with the Night, I tried again, but it was a different person reading it, and it was just awful, and I couldn’t get even a half hour into it.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                This version was read by a female so I didn’t think of Orson. I don’t remember who read it. There were a bunch of HG Wells stuff that Leonard Nimoy did as part of radio shows. They were good too.

                Your thoughts around reading and hearing reminded me of (surprise!) Seinfeld where George hates his voice he hears in his head when he reads so he gets a person to read the book for the blind. Then, when he gets the recording, the narrator’s voice sounds just like his! :D

              • jesse
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

                As many times as I have seen Seinfeld episodes, in the back of my mind I always knew, just KNEW, there was one or two I haven’t seen, or have seen only once.
                I think this one you mention is one of them.

              • jesse
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

                BTW, TOTALLY off topic, but since we are talking TV now and since you are from Canada, I thought I would mention my love of Road to Avonlea. I once had a big satellite dish and got that courtesy CBC. It is absolutely gorgeous.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

                Ha ha! I’ve actually never watched that but I do like the CBC and the comedy shows are great.

              • jesse
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

                In Road to Avonlea, the character development and the cinematography are exquisite. You fall in love with the characters. And you notice how much of it is filmed when the sun is low – the golden hours. The story lines are also great. I can’t recommend it highly enough; not just for kids.
                I also enjoyed Wind at My Back, altho the story lines were a little darker.
                Oh well, enough of that from me : )

            • HaggisForBrains
              Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:16 am | Permalink

              Richard Burton does a beautiful job of the opening lines in the Jeff Wayne musical version.

  22. Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I tried Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of “Ulysses”. It wouldn’t take the whole thing– said there was “not enough text”. Trying various parts of the end of the piece, I got it to read two bits (both of which included the end). The shorter bit was “Good, 7th grade”. The longer bit was “OK, 9th grade”.

    • mordacious1
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      Some of the best prose ever written, IMHO, is in that section of “Ulysses”.
      I wonder how it likes DH Lawrence?

  23. Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I just got a perfect score with Hemingway with the following:

    See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!

    If this app is serious, it’s seriously fucked. Uh-oh — I used an adverb! I think that was meant to be evil. And oh noes! Passive voice!

    Fuck that shit.

    b&

    • Sastra
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      lol!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      :D

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Ironically, your self-referential adverb-containing, passive-voice-having complaint also earns a perfect score. By the app’s lights, one adverb and one use of passive voice is ideal for that length.

      • Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Shouldn’t that be, “…self-referrential, adverbially bountiful complaint having been written in the passive voice…”?

        b&

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Ben: Try “It was a dark and stormy night” next.

      • Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

        Well, it hates Bulwer-Lytton, too, but I don’t know that that’s enough to redeem it….

        b&

  24. Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    To be fair, the thing that makes some prose luscious isn’t its adherence to style guidelines, which is what this app evaluates. It’s the associations we have with certain words or phrases, the images conjured up by what the writer is writing about.

    Style guidelines have their function and place, but they don’t figure heavily in judging literature as an art form. The app may be good at what it does, but what it does doesn’t have much to do with literature.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I wonder how it is with academic essays as you’d think that’s what it would do well with for style.

      • Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Yes. That’s where clear, precise, and therefore perhaps not terribly interesting writing is most important.

        If you ask me.

  25. JBlilie
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    That last paragraph always gives me goosebumps. Brilliant, just brilliant.

  26. cfo
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    From the beginning of Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”:

    The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.

    So the salesman jangled and clanged his huge leather kit in which oversized puzzles of ironmongery lay unseen but which his tongue conjured from door to door until he came at last to a lawn which was cut all wrong.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      A long-time Ray Bradbury fan here. The following is chosen, almost at random, from my collection: the opening paragraphs from “The Emissary”.

      MARTIN KNEW IT WAS AUTUMN AGAIN, for Dog ran into the house bringing wind and frost and a smell of apples turned to cider under trees. In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell-summer, acorn-husk, hair of squirrel, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees. Dog jumped. Showers of brittle fern, blackberry vine, marsh-grass sprang over the bed where Martin shouted. No doubt, no doubt of it at all, this incredible beast was October!

      “Here, boy, here!”

      And Dog settled to warm Martin’s body with all the bonfires and subtle burnings of the season, to fill the room with soft or heavy, wet or dry odors of far-traveling. In spring, he smelled of lilac, iris, lawn-mowered grass; in summer, ice-cream-mustached, he came pungent with firecracker, Roman candle, pin wheel, baked by the sun. But autumn! Autumn!

      “Dog, what’s it like outside?”

      And lying there, Dog told as he always told. Lying there, Martin found autumn as in the old days before sickness bleached him white on his bed. Here was his contact, his carry-all, the quick-moving part of himself he sent with a yell to run and return, circle and scent,collect and deliver the time and texture of worlds in town, country, by creek, river, lake, down-cellar, up-attic, in closet or coal-bin. Ten dozen times a day he was gifted with sunflower seed, cinder-path, milkweed, horse-chestnut, or full flame-smell of pumpkin. Through the loomings of the universe Dog shuttled; the design was hid in his pelt. Put out your hand, it was there…

      “And where did you go this morning?”

      But he knew without hearing where Dog had rattled down hills where autumn lay in cereal crispness, where children lay in funeral pyres, in rustling heaps, the leaf-buried but watchful dead, as Dog and the world blew by. Martin trembled his fingers, searched the thick fur, read the long journey. Through stubbled fields, over glitters of ravine creek, down marbled spread of cemetery yard, into woods. In the great season of spices and rare incense, now Martin ran through his emissary, around, about, and home!

      I’m not going to subject this evocative writing to the indignity of computer analysis.

      Incidentally one of the scariest ghost stories I have ever read!

      • cfo
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        I love it! Will have to find that story. Bradbury could always evoke “familiar” scenes to me as few others could.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:10 am | Permalink

          It’s in The October Country, but I’ve found a pdf of it here

  27. madscientist
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I guess it would give JD Salinger high marks then. I wonder how it would rate TS Eliot’s “Gus the Theater Cat” or Eric Blair’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant”.

    • noncarborundum
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      See my post below re: Blair’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”, which it rated only “OK”.

  28. noncarborundum
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    George Orwell (Eric Blair) was a fine prose stylist, and I’ve always particularly loved his writing in “Down and Out in Paris and London.” I don’t know if I have a favorite passage, but I ran the following (from near the beginning) through the App and it rated “OK”. Apparently Mr. Blair should be making 3 of his sentences easier to read, simplifying words or phrases while aiming to eliminate all adverbs.

    “It was a very narrow street – a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse. All the houses were hotels and packed to the tiles with lodgers, mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians. At the foot of the hotels were tiny bistros, where you could be drunk for the equivalent of a shilling. There was fighting over women, and the Arab navvies who lived in the cheapest hotels used to conduct mysterious feuds, and fight them out with chairs and occasionally revolvers. At night the policemen would only come through the street two together. It was a fairly rackety place. And yet amid the noise and dirt lived the usual respectable French shopkeepers, bakers and laundresses and the like, keeping themselves to themselves and quietly piling up small fortunes. It was quite a representative Paris slum.”

  29. cfunr
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I rarely, if ever, read books, and the few times I do, they’re not in english, but my native tongue.

    However, I agree with everything the app had to say about the ‘Out of Africa’ -piece. I got no imagery at all and the sentences were confusing and all jumbled up. In the end I had no idea what I had just read.

    I don’t understand why the writing itself has to be ‘artsy'; just give me the imagery, and I’m satisfied.

    • Posted March 31, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      If you’re talking about the first excerpt, the long one, I find it quite evocative, and can form a visual picture of the landscape from her words. And it’s also beautiful to read. What you mean by “artsy” is the beauty of language, without which poetry wouldn’t exist. Presumably you don’t think it should.

      The second excerpt expresses in a subjective but moving way the fact that although she will always remember the particulars of Africa, her mark on that country is transitory, and it makes her sad. But the way I just said it is infinitely less beautiful (and is missing the images that move her) than Blixen’s prose.

  30. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Conspicuously missing from the Hemingway App site is any explanation of why it was created, who its target audience is meant to be, who Adam Long and Ben Long are, or what qualifications they have as experts on good writing.

    Lacking any evidence to the contrary, I’m going to assume this is just a gimmick cooked up solely to attract page views.

    • jesse
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      +1

  31. Stephen Barnard
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I entered the first paragraph of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, an iconic and well-known piece of prose:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    Verdict: Bad, grade 30

    Next I entered two paragraphs from winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest (the site requires a minimum amount of text):

    She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

    “Don’t know no tunnels hereabout,” said the old-timer, “unless you mean the abandoned subway line that runs from Hanging Hill, under that weird ruined church, beneath the Indian burial ground, past the dilapidated Usher mansion, and out to the old abandoned asylum for the criminally insane where they had all those murders.”

    Verdict: Bad grade 30, same as Dickens

    • mordacious1
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      I was just going to put that text from “A Tale of Two Cities” in myself. Okay, verdict in: This thing is ridiculous and should be ignored. “See Dick Run” indeed…

  32. beanfeast
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I know nothing about this app and can’t really be bothered to go digging around for information that is not immediately available on the website. About 25 years ago I wrote a very small program to judge the readability of reports I was writing for clients. At the time I found that there were several well defined, but awkward to implement, methods and I ended up using a bastardised version of the Fog Index (I defined a certain number of letters as the minimum for word complexity, rather than the number of syllables.)

    There was another test I could have implemented that gave a result in terms of the school grade someone would need to be to comprehend the text but being British, U.S. school grades weren’t really of much significance.

    A quick check with Google shows this second method is called the Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is what they used to calculate readability.

  33. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    The app has also been noticed over at NPR in which the creators make this claim

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/theprotojournalist/2014/03/05/282887992/hemingway-doesnt-always-live-up-to-his-code

    “Even the creators of the app — brothers Adam and Ben Long — tried running Ernest Hemingway through Hemingway. “Hemingway is a tool, and like all tools, it doesn’t know when you intentionally violate its rules,” Ben, 23, a copywriter in New York, tells us. “If you plug in Ernest Hemingway’s writing, you’ll see that he breaks the rules all the time. The beauty of Hemingway is that you don’t have to agree with everything. It just points out things you might fix: complex sentences, tricky diction, passive voice, and adverbs.”

    The New Yorker has also noted that software-Hemingway evaluates meat-and-bones Hemingway rather poorly

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/02/hemingway-takes-the-hemingway-app-test.html

    I’m a bit more of a connoisseur of good poetry and stage writing than prose, but I guess one of my favorite passages of the latter is the opening paragraph of “Jane Eyre”.

    “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.”

    I greatly admire the writing !*style*! of the English translation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Last Temptation of Christ” but I have very mixed feelings about the novel. Nonetheless the opening sentence “A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him” is a winner.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      If you plug in Ernest Hemingway’s writing, you’ll see that he breaks the rules all the time.

      Or maybe Ben Long just has a mistaken idea of what the rules actually are.

  34. Grania Spingies
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    The only thing this app really seems to gauge is clarity. It might be useful to technical writers who want to check whether the information conveyed in the sentence is clearly expressed. Maybe.

    It isn’t going to help anyone write the next Great English Novel.

  35. Craig Gallagher
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always liked the opening paragraphs of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. This is just the first;

    “Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centred army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.”

  36. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    The app gave Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman a “good” with a reading level of grade 6. :D

    This is what I fed into it. The story is about a nurse, Enid carrying for a dying woman. This excerpt is about the day when Enid thinks the woman will die – Enid tries to make the day special for the children and the prose juxtaposes the story of fun things like cookies, playing and jell-o with the reality of the impending death. I like how Munro does this & I love her prose:

    When the children woke up they found her in bountiful good spirits, freshly washed and dressed and with her hair loose. She had already made the Jell-O crammed with fruit that would be ready for them to eat at noon. And she was mixing batter for cookies that could be baked before it got too hot to use the oven.

    “Is that your father’s boat?” she said. “Down on the river?” Lois said yes. “But we’re not supposed to play in it.” Then she said, “If you went down with us we could.” They had caught on at once to the day’s air of privilege, its holiday possibilities, Enid’s unusual mix of languor and excitement.

    “We’ll see,” said Enid. She wanted to make the day a special one for them, special aside from the fact — which she was already almost certain of — that it would be the day of their mother’s death. She wanted them to hold something in their minds that could throw a redeeming light on whatever came later. On herself, that is, and whatever way she would affect their lives later.

    That morning Mrs. Quinn’s pulse had been hard to find and she had not been able, apparently, to raise her head or open her eyes. A great change from yesterday, but Enid was not surprised. She had thought that great spurt of energy, that wicked outpouring talk, would be the last. he held a spoon with water in it to Mrs. Quinn’s lips, and Mrs. Quinn drew a little of the water in. She made a mewing sound — the last trace, surely, of all her complaints.

  37. RGBowman
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I can’t imagine what it would do with Ray Bradbury’s writing style.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      Somebody should see what it does with the first paragraph of Fahrenheit 451.

      • Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        It says, “OK,” believe it or not. (Wot? Bradbury merely “OK”? Seriously? <sigh />)

        b&

  38. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I love this excerpt, from Zorba the Greek (which Ceiling Cat recommended recently):

    “Once I was a potter. I was mad about that craft. Do you realize what it means to take a lump of mud and make what you will out of it? Ffrr! You turn the wheel and the mud whirls round as if it were possessed, while you stand over it and say: ‘I’m going to make a jug, I’m going to make a plate, I’m going to make a lamp and the devil knows what more!’ That’s what you might call being a man: freedom!”

    And this, from Warren Zevon: “You hear him howling around your kitchen door, you better not let him in. A little old lady got mutilated late last night: Werewolves of London again.”

  39. plauk
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    You’re all getting offended by this app for no reason. It’s not judging ‘good’ writing, or ‘beautiful’ imagery or anything that might make something your favourite passage ever.

    It’s a tool to help simplify your writing to make it easier for people to read. That’s it! If you don’t care about making your writing easier to read, then don’t use it.

    This is like complaining that your hammer is completely useless for painting.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      The app says it will make your writing easier to read, but why should we believe it? Where’s the evidence that these rules actually result in clearer prose or greater comprehension? To me they smell like an idiosyncratic and unsupported collection of pet peeves with no relation to good writing.

      If this tool is useful for anything at all, it’s getting the authors their 15 minutes of fame. Beyond that I remain skeptical.

      • plauk
        Posted March 31, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        You don’t have to believe it. You don’t have to agree with it. It’s a utility that will be useful for some people with specific goals. If your writing is fine without it, then it’s not for you.

        I seriously think people are overstating the significance of a simple helper utility. It isn’t trying to be the be all and end all of officially sanctioned ‘good writing’.

        Spell checkers sometimes get things wrong also, and can be safely ignored. If you find the tool useful, great. If you don’t find it useful, great – you don’t have to use it.

        This dismissal of it as useless is ridiculous. If you don’t find it useful it doesn’t mean that other people won’t. Some people use these things to help them find problems in their writing. I would say that even people who DO find it useful don’t always accept all the suggestions.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

          It’s not ridiculous to ask for evidence that a tool can do what it claims to do. The fact that some people find it “useful” is irrelevant; some people find homeopathy “useful”, but that doesn’t make it true.

          The question remains: does following these rules actually improve anybody’s writing by any objective measure? Until that’s answered, this tool has not demonstrated any utility as a guide to good writing.

          • plauk
            Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

            “does following these rules actually improve anybody’s writing by any objective measure?”

            There is no single objective measure for improving writing, because it’s an inherently subjective medium. However, once you decide what your goals are, it’s pretty trivial to make decisions about what kinds of things to avoid doing in your writing.

            Writing is generally aimed at a particular audience, and should be tailored to that audience. If your audience has difficulty reading complicated sentence structure or has a limited vocabulary or is put off by passive verbiage then tools that point out these things ARE USEFUL. It’s not a difficult thing to understand.

            Don’t get confused about what this tool is doing. It’s not going to automatically make your writing ‘objectively’ better. Your expectations from such a tool are unrealistic, and so you are likely going to be disappointed. I’ve run into this attitude before with people who are new to computers, and somehow get it into their heads that the computer should be able to read their thoughts. First they overestimate what the software is capable of, and then they declare it useless or broken because they are using it wrong.

            PS. Comparing a simple piece of software that has a few rules that point out specific patterns in writing to homeopathy is odd, and I get the impression that you think this is a great comparison. Would you make the same comparison if the suggestions came from a person, such as an editor? Would you call an editor useless just because you disagree with their suggestions for improving your writing? Would you demand evidence that an editor’s markup is objectively better than your original text? Just because the suggestions are coming from a computer doesn’t mean they are magically objective. Decisions are made by the creators of the app and those decisions affect how the app analyses the text. If you have a problem with those decisions, fine. It doesn’t make the app useless, and it isn’t the same thing as pretend medicine.

            • Stephen Barnard
              Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

              I put your last two paragraphs into the Hemingway app. You got grade 10, good.

              I agree that it’s good writing. The problem with this app is that it can’t appreciate lyrical, imaginative writing that breaks the rules. If someone writes truly awful prose it will probably recognize it. If someone writes poetically, with rhythm and cadence, it has no clue.

              • plauk
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

                “The problem with this app is that it can’t appreciate lyrical, imaginative writing that breaks the rules.”

                True. But I don’t think it’s a problem, because it isn’t meant to do that. It would be orders of magnitude more difficult, perhaps impossible, to write an app that could quantify such a thing. You’d almost be getting into A.I. territory if you succeeded.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

              If the goal is to facilitate compliance with Ben & Adam’s Excellent Style Rules, then I agree that this app serves that goal.

              But that’s not the claim that’s being made. The app presents itself as a tool for making prose clearer and easier to understand. (It doesn’t say by whom.) But neither you nor the app have given any reason to think that complying with Ben & Adam’s rules will accomplish that. You simply assert it as if it’s self-evident. It isn’t. It’s an empirical question that requires measurements of actual reading comprehension to answer.

              And for the record, I’m not new to computers; I’ve been programming them since the 1960s. I don’t expect the app to be a perfect oracle. My complaint is that the app presents itself as a perfect oracle, with absolutely no justification.

              • plauk
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

                “My complaint is that the app presents itself as a perfect oracle, with absolutely no justification.”

                Does it? I must have missed that claim.

              • plauk
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

                As I said earlier, some people get it in their head that the app is supposed to read their thoughts, and are then disappointed when it can’t.

                This is all I can see in regards to claims: “Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear.

                Hemingway highlights long, complex sentences and common errors; if you see a yellow highlight, shorten the sentence or split it. If you see a red highlight, your sentence is so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, splitting logic — try editing this sentence to remove the red.

                Adverbs are helpfully shown in blue. Get rid of them and pick verbs with force instead.

                You can utilize a shorter word in place of a purple one. Mouse over it for hints.

                Phrases in green have been marked to show passive voice.”

                So, if you think that translates to “perfect oracle” well… I dunno. I don’t see it?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

                If you don’t like “perfect oracle”, fine; let’s use your phrase.

                You say users are at fault because “they overestimate what the software is capable of”.

                Here’s what the software itself says it’s capable of: “Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear.” But all it really does is measure compliance with some simplistic style rules which have not been shown to have anything to do with boldness or clarity.

                So tell me again who’s guilty of overestimating?

  40. Mark Joseph
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    This is the first half or so (and a good breaking point) of the very long first paragraph of The Last Castle by Jack Vance. I am especially impressed with the first and last sentences of the excerpt:

    “Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain-clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed. Until almost the last moment factions among the castle clans contended as to how Destiny properly should be met. The gentlemen of most prestige and account elected to ignore the entire undignified circumstance and went about their normal pursuits, with neither more nor less punctilio than usual. A few cadets, desperate to the point of hysteria, took up weapons and prepared to resist the final assault. Still others, perhaps a quarter of the total population, waited passively, ready—almost happy—to expiate the sins of the human race. In the end, death came uniformly to all, and all extracted as much satisfaction from their dying as this essentially graceless process could afford.

  41. stephen
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I submit that this is a good example: http://haytom.us/mrs-packletides-tiger/

  42. Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I read this book many years ago, long before the movie etc. It’s a classic even if you aren’t particularly into fantasy or unicorns:

    The opening lines of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle:

    “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”

  43. plauk
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    @Gregory

    (Apparently there is a limit to how many tiered replies are allowed)

    First, language rules are all just suggestions. The idea of “boldness” or “clarity” in language might change, but that doesn’t mean you can’t decide what you want to achieve and use a set of rules to help you achieve those goals. If you happen to be the only person on earth who thinks adverbs should be cut out of prose most of the time, does that make you wrong?

    Do you reject “style guides” as a valid tool for assisting in structuring prose?

    Would you complain about a person making the same suggestions? Would you consider any structured set of rules to be just as “useless”?

    If something is fuzzy, or difficult to quantify, do you think it is a waste of time to try?

    If I was to say that I prefer to minimize adverbs in prose, not for any objective reason, but because I like that flavour of language, and used this tool to help me find them when I would otherwise miss them, would you consider that a ‘use’? Would it then be ‘useful’?

    • Darkwhite
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      The app does not properly recognize adverbs. Neither can it accurately detect passive voice; these are both qualities it pretends to count and explicitly reports on.

      Via LanguageLog; Jonathon Owen:
      I just checked, and apparently the only thing it flagged as an adverb is “roly”. It looks like it just flags pretty much anything ending in -ly, which would explain how it misses adverbs like “instead” in its own suggestions. I pasted in the first list from this site, and it thought 49 out of 61 of them were adverbs.

      Via LanguageLog; Matt:
      Its built-in shock proof passive detector seems to be off, as “John was wugged,” “John was red,” and “John was Ted” all trigger a use of the passive voice.

      So, on the claims it makes which can be tested – whether it detects adverbs and passive constructions – it is demonstrably bunk.

    • Darkwhite
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

      The list of non-adverbs is taken from this page: http://srufaculty.sru.edu/david.dailey/words/lys.html

      So if you did indeed, for some reason, want to avoid adverbs in writing, it still wouldn’t be useful.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      I’ve already conceded that if your goal is adherence to some arbitrary set of style rules (such as minimizing adverbs or avoiding passives), then mechanical tools like this can help meet that goal.

      But again, this app is not presenting itself merely as a style rule checker. It’s making the stronger claim that these rules are not arbitrary, and that obeying them will improve your prose, despite considerable evidence on this thread and elsewhere that there’s plenty of prose out there that’s widely acknowledged to be good and yet violates these rules.

      So I think we’re justified in being skeptical of the value of these rules. The utility of the app in checking these rules is not at issue; it’s the rules themselves that are in question. But you’ll find no hint on the app site that any such question exists. It’s simply asserted, without evidence, that these are the rules you should use for bold, clear prose.

      My view of style guides in general is that they’re useful for conforming to institutional standards in situations where that’s a requirement, but that the rules themselves are often little more than poorly motivated pet peeves with only tenuous connection to actual usage. This view does not change if you replace a computerized rule checker with a human copy-editor working from the same rulebook.

      But I’m not saying anything I haven’t said already, and I don’t want to dominate the thread with pointless back-and-forth, so I think I’ll leave it there.

  44. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    I pasted in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

    Verdict: Good. Grade 3

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      Oh, well done!

      ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      did gyre and gimble in the wabe
      All mimsy were the borogroves
      and the mome raths outgrabe.

      Very clear, simple declarative sentences, of course it scored highly!

  45. Marella
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    I think the hating on adverbs comes from English teachers; so many students use them so badly that their solution is to ban them altogether!

    • Dominic
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:46 am | Permalink

      I do not understand that – no one ever told me that adverbs were wrong? How ridiculous.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:27 am | Permalink

        Yeah no none ever told me that adverbs were bad either. If they did, I’d give them some choice adjectives!

      • Marella
        Posted April 6, 2014 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

        My daughter’s English teacher said “Adverbs are of the devil”.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:42 am | Permalink

      My concern these days is that true adverbs are disappearing, to be replaced by adjectives being used as adverbs. A pet peeve of mine. Perhaps I’m being an old fuddy duddy, and should quietly accept this as part of the evolution of language. But I hate it!

    • Owen Recognizance
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

      Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
      FWIW

  46. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    How about this –

    “We animals are the most complicated things in the known universe. The universe that we know, of course, is a tiny fraction of the actual universe. There may be yet more complicated objects than us on other planets, and some of them may already know about us.”

    The Blind Watchmaker, Chapter 1. The very first words of Richard Dawkins’ that I read, after which I couldn’t put the book down. I just include them as a sample of his way with words.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      I was thinking of trying his famous description of yahweh from the beginning of chapter 2 of The God Delusion. It would probably score low because the sentence is quite long.

  47. dwisker
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    One of my favorites, from “The Magus”, by John Fowles:

    I walked towards the southeast gate. Two steps, four, six. Then ten.

    “Nicko.”

    I stopped; turned with a granite-hard face. She came towards me, stopped two or three yards away. She wasn’t acting; she was going back to Australia; or to some Australia of the mind, the emotions, to live, without me. Yet she could not let me go.

    Eleutheria. Her turn to know.

    Then I went on. Fifteen, twenty yards. I closed my eyes. Prayed.

    Her hand on my arm. I turned again. Her eyes were wounded, outraged; I was more than ever impossible. But also some delay she was trying to make. Some compromise. I snatched myself free, of both hand and eyes.

    I hit her before she could speak. I flicked my arm out, held it the smallest fraction of a second, then brought it down sideways as hard as I could; so sure that she would twist her head aside. But in that smallest fraction of a warning second she finally decided; and decision was the savage but unavoided slap knocking her sideways. Even so her hand flashed up instinctively, and her eyes blinked with shock.

    Pain.

    We stared wildly at each other for a moment. Not in love. No name, no name, but unable to wear masks. She recovered first. Behind her I could see people stopped on the path. A man stood up from his seat. The Indian sat and watched. Her hand was over the side of her face, shielding it as well as soothing it. Her eyes were wet, perhaps with the pain. But she was slowly smiling. That archaic smile, her variant of theirs, steadier, braver, far less implacable, without malice or arrogance, yet still that smile.

    Mocking love, yet making it.

    And suddenly the truth came to me, as we stood there, trembling, searching, at our point of fulcrum. There were no watching eyes. The windows were as blank as they looked. The theatre was empty. It was not a theatre. They had told her it was a theatre, and she had believed them, and I had believed her. To bring us to this — not for themselves, but for us. I turned and looked at the windows, the facade, the pompous white pedimental figures.

    Then she buried her face in her hands, as if some inexorable mechanism had started.

    I was so sure. It was logical, the characteristic and perfect final touch to the godgame. They had absconded. I was so sure, and yet… after so much, how could I be perfectly sure? How could they be so cold? So inhuman? So incurious? So load the dice and yet leave the game? And if I wasn’t sure?

    I gave her bowed head one last stare, then I was walking. Firmer than Orpheus, as firm as Alison herself, that other day of parting, not once looking back. The autumn grass, the autumn sky. People. A blackbird, poor fool, singing out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of gray pigeons over the houses. Fragments of freedom, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.

  48. Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Here’s my all-time favorite prose passage in English, at least so far. It’s by Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay “Self-reliance.” I can’t download the app, but it’d be fun to check this out–I imagine it wouldn’t score well. But this really is beautiful, inspirational prose:

    “Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, ‘O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s…I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and if we follow the truth it will bring us out safe at last.’ -–But so may you give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility.”

  49. Posted April 3, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Il Blog di Tino Soudaz 2.0 ( un pochino).

  50. Posted April 3, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    This app REALLY hates HP Lovecraft. This excerpt from Nyarlathotep got Grade 23:
    Screamingly sentient, dumbly delirious, only the gods that were can tell. A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low. Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half-seen columns of unsanctified temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzy vacua above the spheres of light and darkness. And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods—the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep.

  51. Posted April 3, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    This is our future! All classic literature is OKAY. It’s like when I read that people tweeted on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking “I thought the Titanic was just a movie!” Sad…

  52. Posted April 3, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Taking something apart is not the same as putting something together. Analysis is not synthesis. Let computers do what computers are good at, and let people do what people are good at.

  53. Posted April 3, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway, but that is just ridiculous. Thanks for sharing. And congrats on the FP!

  54. Posted April 4, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmadol's Blog.

  55. Posted April 5, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Shockingly, a translation of Metamorphosis scores “Okay” despite it’s obvious awkwardness. I do like Kafka though.

  56. Posted April 6, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    You’re right. It’s useless. I just typed in the following gibberish:

    “Random sog thorin mars mole antelope iterative smile. Frog understudy bumblebee felt innate thrip. Delve civet binary sock enteric scissors sun kick diamond isolate. Jumble wipe insidious prime. Finger pluto quirk idea garage elephant dribble fork jupiter aston martin dive esoteric kind.”

    This doesn’t even have grammatically complete sentences. It’s totally meaningless. Yet “Hemingway app” marked me 11 (OK) and found no fault with hard to read, adverbs or anything else. By its standards, as good as Hemingway himself.

    Astonishing, and the worst of it is – wearing my ‘cynical hat’, I can see apps like the ‘Hemingway app’ being used to judge people’s skills. Sigh…

  57. Posted April 9, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Wow, thanks for the post. I used the APP and was a little dubious about it’s ability myself, this confirms it. If I ever reach Hemingway’s ability with words I don’t think an APP would bring me down (o;

  58. Posted April 9, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on david j delaney and commented:
    Free APP telling Hemingway how he should have written and share’s his name (o;

  59. Posted April 10, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Loved this.

  60. Steve
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    It seems like folks here aren’t sure what Hemingway app is trying to do.

    It’s not some magic writing-quality guide. It’s a tool to move writing towards clarity. And usually, clarity is simple.

    Even Earnest himself didn’t write ultra-simply all the time.

  61. Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Hhaha! Hemingway’s app hates his own writing.

  62. Katie
    Posted July 24, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    It *does*, however, seem to be a great way to judge reading level for short academic works. I know of a few community health brochures that should be run through Hemingway; health literature needs to read at a 6th grade reading level, and should be concise and direct. I think this might actually do the trick.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] were, in fact. However, the effectiveness of how the Hemingway app was tested by Jerry Coyne with passages from Fitzgerald, Dinisen, and others.  The result?  They were just […]

  2. […] When I say interactive fiction, I mean text adventures. Also: A hat tip to Why Evolution Is True for compelling me to try out the Hemingway App. If my sentences sound strangely choppy in the […]

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