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Where Hemingway learned his craft


“Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.” That was the first of the “110 precepts” in the style guide of the Kansas City Star, says John Miller in The Wall Street Journal, the local paper where Ernest Hemingway cut his teeth. The author worked at the paper for less than seven months, between leaving school in 1917 and joining up to the war effort to drive ambulances in 1918. But that first axiom alone might as well be an “introduction to Hemingway’s technique”. “Those were the best rules that I ever learned,” he said in 1940. “No man with any talent… can fail to write well if he abides by them.”

Style guides exist to correct common blunders in grammar and usage, such as mistaking “who” for “whom”, and to settle “disputable questions”: is it “French fries” or “french fries”? Some of the Star’s edicts are broad and familiar (“Don’t split infinitives”) but others are more precise: “Be careful of the word ‘only.’ ‘He only had $10,’ means he alone was the possessor of such wealth.’ ‘He had only $10,’ means the ten was all the cash he possessed.” While a few now look antiquated – “motor car is preferred but automobile is not incorrect” – the Star clearly had a sense of humour. “He died of heart disease, not heart failure,” the style guide notes. “Everybody dies of ‘heart failure’.”