Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

My wife, Karen, and I happen to have for more than a decade a good Catholic pastor, Msgr. Robert Gibbons. Among his many gifts, he is a news junkie and is endlessly fascinated with language and literature. (He is also a cancer survivor and very encouraging to Karen during her recovery.)

Since we can’t gab with him on Sunday mornings during the pandemic, he will send the occasional message, at times with a question.  Like this one about a Hemingway sentence:

I always like to pick up, from time to time, “A Moveable Feast.”

Yesterday the opening sentence of Chapter 2 struck me: “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely.”

Why do I find that sentence so compelling?  Is it the lack of commas?  Is it that almost all the words are one-syllable?  Is it the fact that he doesn’t just say “clear and cold” but adds “lovely,” which is perhaps unexpected by the reader, especially after “clear and cold.”

What is it about that sentence?

Here was my response:

Thanks for the invitation to X-ray that sentence, Father. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely.”

You are right that Hemingway’s style is marked by the absence of commas.  I would have written it: “When we came back to Paris, it was clear, cold, and lovely.”

It is technically a complex sentence with one subordinate clause followed by an independent clause. In the conventions of regular punctuation, that requires a comma after “Paris,” so sternest schoolmasters would have taken points off. But it is in that small violation that Hemingway’s rhetorical style is revealed.

You are also correct that all but two of his words are of one syllable. That actually forces us to see the two words that stand out: “Paris” and “lovely,” the two most important words. “Paris” is the last word in the first clause; “lovely” the last in the main clause.

Then there is the principle of three. Three examples sends a secret message: “That’s all you need to know.”  Clear and cold and lovely. The number two (2) divides the world, but three (3) encompasses the world.  Think of St. Paul in Corinthians:  faith, hope, and love; or the way I learned it: faith, hope, and charity.

The power comes from parallelism in Paul but also in Hemingway. “Clear” and “cold” are parallel — single syllable words that are alliterative. In a parallel list, the author always has a shot at giving it a tweak at the end. (Think of Frank Sinatra:  “I’ve been a pirate, a pauper, a puppet, a poet, a pawn, and a king.”) “Lovely” may sound like a weaker word because it has two syllables, with the emphasis on the first. (Parallel with “Paris.”) But Hemingway knows what all effective writers know:  That the most emphatic word should go at the end.

Thanks again for asking. Look forward to seeing you again. Karen does, too. Roy

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute since 1977.  He is the author or editor of 19 books on journalism and the writing craft including “Writing Tools” and his most recent “Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser.”

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