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.
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:
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.”
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.