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1 Adverbs. Aim for 0 or fewer.
February 13, 2014 5:29 PM   Subscribe

What happens when the works of Ernest Hemingway meet the application Hemingway, which claims to make your writing "Bolder and Stronger?" Oh really?
posted by eriko (53 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
It looks like you're writing the Great American Novel. Would you like help?
posted by Flashman at 6:04 PM on February 13 [13 favorites]


This particular app may well be junk, but the day of tools like this is coming.

In the same way that the synthesizer or sampler was once seen as "cheating," and is now a complete normal part of making music, this type of software will become a weapon in the arsenal of writers. The instinctive revulsion at "A computer wrote it for him!" will go and it will be another tool, like the word processor or typewriter.

Like any tool, it will be only as good or bad as the person using it. Of course it won't turn you into Hemingway, any more than a synthesizer with pre-programmed beats will make you Mozart. But mainstream acceptance of tools like this is inevitable and even predictable.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:13 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


"1 adverbs. Aim for 0 or fewer."
posted by Iridic at 6:14 PM on February 13


We're taking writing advice from a piece of software that can't figure out plural versus singular?
posted by Sequence at 6:19 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


("Did not read post title. Aim for one post title readings or more.")
posted by Iridic at 6:22 PM on February 13 [7 favorites]


Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Grade 16, OK.
posted by Wet Spot at 6:32 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


For sale: One adverb. Never written.
posted by notyou at 6:37 PM on February 13 [30 favorites]


MetaFilter: Aim for 0 or fewer.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:43 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


What we could use is applications Marx and Qutb, filter all our output through them, and flood the NSA sniffers with an avalanche of false positive noise. This thread could use an actual Hemingway critic to explain how they know more than the writers of this ap could possibly imagine, and that they know fewer than nothing about Ernest Hemingway.
posted by bukvich at 6:44 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I just need to know: Are good writers really not supposed to use adverbs? Why?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:52 PM on February 13


It's just trying to say it wants really negative adverbs. "Glumly, John wandered down the street. His app was working appallingly. I guess I'll just have to chuck this writing-app business in altogether, he thought morosely." All better.
posted by yoink at 6:56 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


One of the comments says "superstitions of English writing" which is a great term for these rules that people fixate on and try to apply universally rather than in moderation.

After laying that shaky groundwork, they botch the implementation. The "1 adverbs" identified in the first excerpt was "roly."

Then some marketing drone who knows the top 10 hashtags currently trending on Twitter but isn't entirely sure whether the sun orbits the Earth or the Earth orbits the sun, and certainly doesn't know anything about Hemmingway, browses a list of famous writers he Googled and picks one that feels nice upon his tongue. "Hemmingway," he whispers to himself. The word has a pleasing sponginess to it.
posted by RobotHero at 7:01 PM on February 13 [6 favorites]


This seems an acceptable time to quote a Powerful Religious Baby:
I would venture the opinion that most writing advice that prizes "precise and spare" above all else is anti-brain bullshit, and deeply undervalues a beloved-of-me human tendency to obscure meaning where we want most to convey it, and to convey meaning where our own message is most occult to us.

Road signs use clear language; let humans make humans send hot swords through the buttery knots of their Gordian words, amen! As for adverbs, there is a reason Tom Swiftie loves them. And as for lists, God keeps them in his pocket. And as for repetition, better that a person should have virtuosic command over a tiny stable of vocabulary than that he should have only a nodding acquaintace with every wild-eyed paint that walks the face of the earth.

Plain language indeed. What an oxymoron, Tom said mutely.
posted by Iridic at 7:09 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]


On Kilimanjaro a sun-bleached, desiccated app slowly turns to dust and blows away ...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:16 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I would venture the opinion that most writing advice that prizes "precise and spare" above all else is anti-brain bullshit, and deeply undervalues a beloved-of-me human tendency to obscure meaning where we want most to convey it, and to convey meaning where our own message is most occult to us.

"1 of 1 sentences are very hard to read. Require [sic] reading at post-college level. Use simpler and fewer words. Consider splitting into two sentences."
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:20 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I think we had such grammar checking and analysis tools as far back as the 80s. They were also all up in your junk about passive voice. I'm sorry -- your junk was getting all up into by them.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:23 PM on February 13 [6 favorites]


Bravo to Language Log for that succinct dissection of the idiocy of this app, which is getting way more attention than it deserves and should result instead in horrible negative publicity for the company that had the stupidity to create it.

*sighs*

Can you tell it really bugs me when people mischaracterize Hemingway's beautiful experimental early prose as "short sentences and 0 adverbs" or some stupid shit like that?

Those early stories are amazing. If you've never read his first short story collection, In Our Time from 1924, or his second, Men Without Women from 1927 (both still among his best works and both published before The Sun Also Rises or any of the other more famous books), you are seriously missing out on some brilliant, sparkling writing that is among the most thoughtful and engaging of the early 20th century.

Zero adverbs, my ass.
posted by mediareport at 7:26 PM on February 13 [7 favorites]


I pasted in part of Finnegans Wake. It pretty much told me to reconsider my life.
posted by Gymnopedist at 7:30 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]


I don't know why everybody mocks. It has long been my goal to write prose so arid that it sucks the adverbs out of the text around it.
posted by ardgedee at 7:43 PM on February 13 [6 favorites]


Yeah, this doesn't seem much different than any of the old tools, I vaguely recall them as far back as Worstar on CP/M. Well not in Wordstar, but an accessory you could pipe text through.

I analyzed and scored standardized English exams for quite a few years, at all levels from k-12 up through college, and we never used any criterion like this. Quite the opposite, we reward people for writing complex sentences at high grade levels. Pithy adverbs? Bonus points. Sentence fragments.. well not so much, unless you use them skillfully.

There seems to be a sort of "uncanny valley" of English writing. As I've experienced it, there is a sort of charming naivete in 3rd through 5th grade writing. Their ability at the mechanics of writing sometimes confounds their expression of ideas, although they seem to make their simple messages clear enough. But as the kids grow older, they start to manipulate more complex grammatical structures, which often go astray so their ideas are incomprehensible. Then at higher levels, they begin to cross the valley. They find their voice and are able to use the language to fit their mode of expression. They stop fighting with the language and start using it naturally, purposefully. At this point, you can even break the rules, if it is purposeful. And the purpose, generally, is to speak in an intelligent adult voice to other intelligent adults. Kids already know how to speak to other kids, in their language. There is a common level of intellect out there, and it isn't 9th grade and below, as Hemingway.app would have you believe.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:45 PM on February 13 [6 favorites]


a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
Grade 12 OK

1 of 2 sentences are hard to read.
1 words or phrases can be simpler

posted by empath at 7:46 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Aim for 0 or fewer.

The... the antiverb?!

No. Shh. It is legend.
posted by nanojath at 7:59 PM on February 13 [4 favorites]


The tarantula rattling at the lily’s foot
Across the feet of the dead, laid in white sand
Near the coral beach—nor zigzag fiddle crabs
Side-stilting from the path (that shift, subvert
And anagrammatize your name)—No, nothing here
Below the palsy that one eucalyptus lifts
In wrinkled shadows—mourns.


Grade: 7. Good!
posted by chortly at 8:19 PM on February 13


Lolly Lolly Lolly, get your adverbs here....
posted by hippybear at 8:21 PM on February 13 [7 favorites]


I think we had such grammar checking and analysis tools as far back as the 80s.

It goes back further. The formula typically used by 80s word processors originated in the 50s.
posted by Shmuel510 at 8:25 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I post. On metafilter. In the rain.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:36 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


These were good links. Strong links. Together they made for a good post. A strong post. A post that sheltered its eyes from the hard noonday sun of the blue.

"I'll be damned", said the man who read the post.

"Probably", said the woman nearby. She shifted her mouse indolently, waiting until his back was turned to favorite it. "You don't see many posts like these anymore" he said, staring in to the middle distance. "I suppose so" she said, to nobody in particular.

In the distance, a cock crowed. A few moments later, a train whistle sounded.

Somewhere, a man in tights killed a bull.
posted by mhoye at 8:44 PM on February 13 [16 favorites]


Yeah ok the app is dumb, but this "test" is dumb too.

The only excerpt from Hemingway that didn't rate an OK was a non-random sample cherry-picked from the middle of a story. If you go back and check out the surrounding paragraphs around it, they rated a Good.
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:53 PM on February 13


I just want to apologize to all reading this thread for my previous comment. It's a horrible earworm, one which hasn't left my head since I typed those fateful words. To all those I similarly infected, and to all those who will encounter that comment and be infected in the future, I offer my humble condolences.
posted by hippybear at 9:01 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Yeah ok the app is dumb, but this "test" is dumb too.

The only excerpt from Hemingway that didn't rate an OK was a non-random sample cherry-picked from the middle of a story. If you go back and check out the surrounding paragraphs around it, they rated a Good.


Well, the first paragraph of The Eye of Argon gets an "OK," too. So maybe "OK" isn't all that OK after all.
posted by dersins at 9:19 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Adverbs are bad because they project a vague subjective state onto a visual scene. He walked glumly -- what does that mean? Why not tell me that he slumped his shoulders and looked at the floor? Or some other arresting detail I couldn't have imagined. Don't make me "do the work" as a reader and posit all sorts of behaviors that may or may not be glum because you the writer couldn't be more specific.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:31 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to
Howth Castle and Environs.
Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen-
core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy
isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor
had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse
to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper
all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to
tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a
kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in
vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a
peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory
end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.


"Grade 7: Good"

Ummm... No.

(After removing the linebreaks, which the app reads as new sentences: "Grade 26: Bad." Now that's more like it.)
posted by rmxwl at 9:40 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Adverbs are bad because they project a vague subjective state onto a visual scene.

Or.... adverbs are good because they describe the emotional state of the character and allow the reader to project their own experience of that same emotion onto the scene without trying to define how that emotion might be physically expressed. Because sometimes physical expression of emotion is non-congruent between personalities (perhaps often). Simply describing the way a character is behaving isn't a very literary way to describe inner emotional state. It's screenwriter and cinema craft, where projection rules. Written stories allow for description of inner states, and this is, IMO, a Good Thing.
posted by hippybear at 9:43 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]


Like all the parts of speech, there are appropriate times and places for adverbs. But they can be a sign of weak writing when they are used as a shortcut by an author who is trying to tell readers what to think of a scene when he should be given the opportunity to decide for himself. For example, if a character says something "angrily," maybe what he says should be written so it sounds angry, and the adverb can be left out.

It's also really very extremely easy to overuse them as intensifiers, and because they can often be just added to text, they encourage wordy sentences when concise, direct writing is usually more appropriate.
posted by JHarris at 9:53 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


previously
posted by Yma at 10:10 PM on February 13


The more I think about it, the more I realize that algorithms are not a valid answer to the question "how can we make better art?" Unless, of course, we're discussing the art of writing algorithms.

Grade 9, good. All zeroes on the recommendations. First try!

Grade 7, good. All zeroes on the recommendations. First try + feedback from the first try.

Grade 8, good. All zeroes on the recommendations. First try + feedback from the first and second tries.

Grade 9, good. All zeroes on the recommendations. First try + feedback from the first, second and third tries.

Grade 12, good. All zeroes on the recommendations. First try + feedback from the first, second, third and fourth tries.

Grade 14, ok. All zeroes on the recommendations. First try + feedback from all previous tries.

Grade 17, bad. All zeroes on the recommendations. First try + feedback from all previous tries.
posted by davejay at 10:47 PM on February 13


Algorithms have plenty of utility in art. For example, lots of people do lovely things with Photoshop, 3D rendering, digital audio, and the animated GIF.

Which are almost perfectly analogous to the ways in which algorithmic tools are useful for writers. This kind of thing isn't it. Maybe one day there'll be a set of accepted software techniques for generatively exploring variations on text, or navigating the structure of a narrative.
posted by brennen at 11:07 PM on February 13


In fairness, "lumpily"? And the rest of that sentence is like Ralph Wiggum's description of Skinner and Crabapple kissing in the closet.
posted by steganographia at 11:25 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Grade 31: BAD

For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.
posted by stonetongue at 11:28 PM on February 13


Grammar check once told me that the word "lady" was an antiquated and sexist term, and I should consider using the word "woman".

Somehow, Woman Gregory didn't quite have the same ring to it.
posted by El Brendano at 11:56 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


The... the antiverb?!

No, it would be the abverb.
posted by carping demon at 12:50 AM on February 14


I just tried a section of my typical writing in ten different free grammar checkers. Each one found completely different mistakes. I have enough difficulty communicating already, and would dearly love a tool to help me. But I am not sure how this helps.
posted by EnterTheStory at 1:06 AM on February 14


My rule of thumb is to cut adverbs unless to do so will change the meaning of the sentence they are in.

They are hard to use well, but they do have a place. Don't use adverbs is one of those rules you learn when to break.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:14 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


Boy, this post really wacked up the related post algorithm thingy. Off to look at the anaconda's magnificent unhinged jaw.
posted by angrycat at 5:02 AM on February 14


Define the set of natural numbers as follows:

0 = {empty set}

s(n) = n U {n}

1 = s(0)

N = the set of all such entities.

Define addition on N as follows: For all m,n in N:

(n+1) = s(n)
s(m+n)=m+s(n)
Grade 0: Good!

Excellent!
posted by Elementary Penguin at 6:40 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


Cat-Scan.com is one of the strangest sites I've seen in some time. I have no idea how these people got their cats wedged into their scanners, or why.

"Grade 6: Good"
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:16 AM on February 14


Boy, this post really wacked up the related post algorithm thingy.

And thank god it did. It directed me back to this piece of forgotten awesome, which gave me the opportunity to give the Hemingway App some davesecretary to chew on:
SO ALSO IN KINDERGARTEN I APPARENTLY THOUGHT THAT THE KIDS IN MY CLASS DIDN'T KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT COUGARS FOR SOME REASON, BECAUSE I DEFINITELY MADE A SWEET COUGAR QUIZ WHICH I INSISTED ON GIVING OUT TO THE CLASS THE NEXT DAY.

WHAT COLOR IS THE COUGAR? GOLD? NO! BROWN? NO! RED? NO! THE ANSWER IS TAWNY.
Grade 3
Good
Paragraphs: 2
Sentences: 9
Words: 56
Characters: 246
0 of 9 sentences are hard to read.
1 of 9 sentences are very hard to read.
1 adverbs. Aim for 1 or fewer.
0 words or phrases can be simpler.
0 uses of passive voice. Aim for 0 or fewer.

posted by dersins at 7:33 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


I think of something like this not for creating art (better or otherwise) so much as for trimming the fat out of marketing or bureaucratic writing. In those cases, people are writing convoluted crap that NEEDS simplifying.

My office supports more than 100 CMS users at a smallish university. Most of them are not expert writers, and writing (esp for the web) is not their main job. I would love to see something like this in a CMS.

(I'm actually running to a meeting to train one of our folks, or I'd write more about that.)
posted by epersonae at 9:01 AM on February 14


Grammar checkers have a place, but they are most useful to people who already know the general rules of grammar, and just need their eye drawn to typos, and so can see when the computer is in error. Slavishly doing what a grammar checker suggests will cause all kinds of problems, because most languages are filled with ambiguities and idioms, and the computer doesn't always know what part of speech a word is, or if you're going for some effect, or if this is a case where a rule needs to be broken.
posted by JHarris at 2:43 PM on February 14


Previously

1 adverbs. Aim for 0 or fewer.
posted by Sing Fool Sing at 2:46 PM on February 14


I have a weird job and I'm in a weird mood and this is the sort of thing I think about a lot but never comes up so I might just open my mouth and let a lot of thoughts fall out. For clarity, I'll leave out all the second guessing I could do. Feel free to add your own.

I think a lot of art and communication interacts with complex cognitive processes in the mind of the viewer that are, sometimes, vague and difficult to understand. This means that the artist has to have a mental model of what the experience of consuming their art is like and use that mental model as a feedback loop. That's why reading something back helps a lot, because you use your experience as a viewer/reader.

But there might be better, faster feedback loops available. Feedback loops available during the creation process.

I do a lot of graphic design, and I found that a lot of design that just felt right depended on physics. If you have a stack of text (like an address on a letterhead) it needed to look balanced. There was some wiggle room, but if you could build it out of blocks, you could build it out of text.

So what if I had a plug-in for my page layout program that treated my text boxes as physical objects sometimes, not constraining me, but allowing me to see what my mind was calculating anyway? Would that let me be a better designer? Not all the time, sure, but it might give me insight into how my design felt both to me and the viewer.

I haven't used Hemingway, but it looks like that's what it's trying to be. A way of visualizing the logical complexity that might put more of a burden on the reader than he writer means to. And damn, that sounds like a wonderful idea to me.
posted by Brainy at 3:29 PM on February 14


In the same way that the synthesizer or sampler was once seen as "cheating," and is now a complete normal part of making music, this type of software will become a weapon in the arsenal of writers.

Not disagreeing here, but the comparison doesn't really work in this case. Even synthesizers with really badass arp-modes or software sequences with powerful humanization tools don't do what Hemingway wants to do. That is, there aren't any popular commercial (to my knowledge) musical products that actually analyze your music writing and say things like "3 tritones, aim for 0 or fewer" or "2 out of 5 motifs contained complex polyrhythms which are difficult to play".

There are some tools that help with harmonization across multiple instruments, and I even have a plugin that creates synth arp sequences based on Bach's chorales, but none of this stuff is attempting to tell me that my writing is good or bad based on a note frequency analysis.

The closest example I can think of would be auto tune, and it still gets plenty of backlash. And it's still just an effect, it doesn't purport to improve writing chops, which is the primary conceit.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:49 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


Adverbs: aim for 0 or fewer.

"'Don't come back till you have him!' the Ticktockman said, very quietly, very sincerely, extremely dangerously"

-- Harlan Ellison, "'Repent Harlequin!' sais the Ticktockman"
posted by storybored at 7:41 PM on February 14


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