“Common abuse of the conjunction” and other writing rules 100 years ago

Text: Solveig Hansen, 2022

July 21 marks Ernest Hemingway’s birthday.

Ernest Hemingway in Kenya 1953. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At 17, in 1917, with the Great War still raging, Hemingway was too young to enlist and went to work for The Kansas City Star newspaper. The Star was one of the best papers in the country, as seen in Ken Burns’ documentary series on Hemingway, with “crisp, clear and immediate reporting.” Their copy style sheet set the tone.

“Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

These were some of the rules in the style sheet used during Hemingway’s six-month tenure in 1917-18, before he joined the Red Cross ambulance service as a driver. He later said that these were “the best rules I ever learned in the business of writing.”

“He took what the Star gave him, and he gave back a vivid, forceful, economical writing that today we call the Hemingway style,” former Kansas City Star editor Mark Zieman said. C.G. “Pete” Wellington, the assistant city editor, “pushed Hemingway to adopt a cleaner, more forceful prose style and to look for telling detail.”

“Get to the point” is one of the characteristics of Hemingway’s style. His opening lines quickly set the scene and draw the reader in, like these:

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

It’s clear that something has happened.

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The Old Man and the Sea

The old man then goes out and catches a fish, a big one, it’s a struggle, the sharks eat it on the way back ashore. What beat me out there, he wonders. “Nothing,” he concludes, “I went out too far.”

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

— Ernest Hemingway in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald

When Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954, the committee recognized his “mastery of the art of narrative” and his influence on contemporary style of writing.

Hemingway’s Nobel acceptance speech (read full text):

“For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”

— Ernest Hemingway in his Nobel acceptance speech

Back to the style sheet and the rules. Language is a living thing that evolves constantly. Some words become obsolete, while new words are born:

Motor car is preferred but automobile is not incorrect.”

Some of the rules remain valid, for instance those about slang and adjectives:

“Never use old slang. [Slang words] have no place after their use becomes common. Slang to be enjoyable must be fresh.”

“Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.”

Also, be precise:

“Say, ‘She was born in Ireland and came to Jackson County in 1874’ not ‘but came to Jackson County.’ She didn’t come here to make amends for being born in Ireland. This is common abuse of the conjunction.”

“Don’t say ‘He had his leg cut off in an accident.’ He wouldn’t have had it done for anything.”

“He died of heart disease, not heart failure — everybody dies of heart failure.”

Read all the original rules here.

See also:

Writers on writing — among them Stephen King, whose newspaper editor taught him, a high school student at the time, more about writing in ten minutes than he had ever learned in the lit classes he attended.

Image: SamHolt6, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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