Hemingway’s Declaration

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Hemingway is a text editor, created by Adam and Ben Long, inspired by the spare writing style of Ernest Hemingway. It analyzes the length and complexity of your sentences. It indicates how frequently you use adverbs and passive constructions.

Here’s a fun game you can play with Hemingway. Take a text, preferably a well-known text, and try to incrementally reduce its grade level. You can play the game on your own or in competition with others.

I’ve just played the game with a paragraph drawn from the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Hemingway dislikes this paragraph. Hemingway regards it as “Bad.”

hemingway-declaration

As we can see, this paragraph of the Declaration reads at a Grade Level of 30. Four of its five sentences are Very Hard to Read. It uses more than zero adverbs. We are informed that two words or phrases could be simplified. The passive voice is used six times. We should aim for one or fewer passive sentences.

Step one of the game: Let’s get rid of these “errors” and see what we’re left with. We’ll need to do some reconstructive surgery on the original paragraph. How does this sound?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that God creates all men equal. Their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights. Among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. To secure these rights, Men institute Governments. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. They can institute new a Government. People should make a new Government that seems most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence dictates that Governments long established should not change for light and transient causes. Experience has shown, that mankind would rather suffer than to abolish governments. But when enough abuses and usurpations pile up, people have a right and duty to overthrow the Government. They should provide new Guards for their future security. This has been the situation of these Colonies. And now it’s necessary to alter our system of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations. These injuries and usurpations aim to establish an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, we submit Facts to a candid world.

Now we have a text that Hemingway regards as “Good.” It’s at a Grade 9 reading level. So we’re making progress. Unfortunately, most Americans read at a 7th or 8th Grade Reading Level. So we’ll have to go through another round of editing. Let’s see how low we can get the reading level without losing the sense of the original text.

Here goes our paragraph from the Declaration at a 4th Grade Level:

We think God creates all men equal. God gives us some Rights. They are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. We make Governments to keep these rights. We give governments permission to rule. When governments become bad, people can fix or end it. They make new Governments. Good governments make us safe and happy. We shouldn’t end governments for small reasons. Most people would rather suffer than end bad governments. But when governments get bad enough, people should fix or end them. They should make sure that governments can’t be bad. This is our problem. We have to switch our Government. The King of Great Britain is a bad man. He’s a tyrant. We will prove it.

We’re getting there. But I think we can do better. Let’s try to get to Grade 0.

God makes us equal. God gives us Rights. They are Life, Liberty and Happiness. Rulers help us. We pick rulers. Some rulers are bad. We stop bad rulers. We pick good rulers. Good rulers make us safe and happy. Be careful when you pick a ruler. We do not like to get new rulers. But when rulers get bad, we get new rulers. We make sure rulers can’t be bad. This is our problem. We have to switch rulers. The King of Great Britain is a bad man. He’s a tyrant. We will prove it.

That’s the end of the game for me. If you’re playing with someone else, compare your Grade 0 rewriting to that of your opponent. Whoever best retains the sense of the original wins.

Let’s call this game Hemingway’s Declaration.

2 thoughts on “Hemingway’s Declaration

  1. I can’t help but think of double-speak. On the other hand, you can imagine how effective this is for teaching purposes (both for instructors, but also for teaching students to write more clearly).

    This also casts a light on the assumptions we make about reading level and the grammatical analysis that establishes what “grade level” a text registers. These algorithms are presumably based on a “distant reading” analysis of many texts, and it’s interesting to apply them so directly to the composition and revision process of a single paragraph.

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