My son Mike recently gave me a new edition of “A Moveable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway. The book chronicles Hemingway’s experiences as a young man in Paris, where Mike is spending his honeymoon with our new daughter in law, Alice.
Hemingway is famous for his spare, tight prose. He took great care in his writing, sometimes spending hours crafting a single sentence.
I was surprised, therefore, to find a rather careless sentence on the dust jacket: “Known for his larger-than-life personality and his passions for bullfighting, fishing, and big-game hunting, Hemingway died in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961.”
I had forgotten the details of Hemingway’s death, but the sentence suggested that it had something to with “bullfighting, fishing, and big game hunting.” Curious, I decided to check. It turned out that his death, although tragic, was not related to any kind of outdoor activity at all.
In the sentence above, “known for his larger-than-life personality and his passions for bullfighting, fishing and big-game hunting” is a participial phrase modifying the subject “Hemingway.” This is a proper way to connect separate ideas within a sentence, but to work the ideas must be related.
Here is another example of a sentence beginning with a participial phrase: “Allowing the members of his cabinet to speak plainly, President Lincoln fostered an atmosphere of trust and collegiality.” As you can see, the ideas are related, so the sentence makes sense.
There are many grammatical ways to link ideas or facts in a single sentence to make your writing more interesting. But if there isn’t a clear relationship between the ideas, don’t try it. You’ll just end up with a very un-Hemingway-like sentence.