Six Things Hemingway Never Said

The internet loves a good quote. Trouble is, the internet rarely cares if the quote was said by the person whose name follows it. It also rarely cares if the person being quoted would have ever, under any circumstances, said anything like what they are being quoted as saying.

What troubles me about this is that the result is often that important people, who said meaningful things, are turned into completely different entities on Facebook walls and in hashtags and in the kinds of stories that get forwarded on. One good example is that college classroom story in which Einstein proves God exists. Or a lot of the content in the subreddit /r/thathappened. This is also a practice that has been thoroughly mocked by Clickhole, as evidenced by the photo below:

One of Clickhole's many brilliant moments.
One of Clickhole’s many brilliant moments.

But worst of all, in my opinion, but also very hilarious, are the stories, quotes, and misquotes attributed to none other than the alcoholic, suicidal, and apparently benevolently-inspiring Ernest Hemingway.

Here are some of those misquotes:

1. Never mistake motion for action.


I had to dig around to figure out where this came from, and why it’s also attributed to Benjamin Franklin. And whether Hemingway ever said it, or anything like it. Eventually, I discovered that he is quoted as saying this in A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway.  Except that he doesn’t actually say the above quote. But here’s what I did find, which he did say, ostensibly, according to actress Marlene Dietrich:

The Real Quote: “Don’t do what you sincerely don’t want to do.  Never confuse movement with action.”

2. “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

This one is a bastardization of a sentence that falls within a much larger paragraph in A Farewell to Arms. This is a strange one. The sentence is close to the original, but when freed of context and muddled with commas, it becomes something entirely different.

The Real Quote: “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Oh, and for you Game of Thrones fans, here’s a link to an amazing use of this quote.  And the first image of said use of the quote:

We miss you, Lord Commander.
We miss you, Lord Commander.

3. “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.”

People love this one. And yes, there is something vaguely Hemingwayesque about it. But it’s a complete fabrication.

I first heard it at a work training, then saw Esquire repeat it, plus so many other sources that are not worth cataloging.  But it has since been proven to be a complete myth, debunked by many. The best summary in my opinion is Open Culture’s “The (Urban) Legend of Ernest Hemingway’s Six-Word Story.”  Read that article, but don’t make the mistake of thinking Hemingway had anything to do with these six words.

The Real Quote: Non-applicable.

4. “Before you act, listen…”

There are a few versions of this one, and they’re all complete nonsense. At least the ones above resemble something he one said, on some level. This one is just insane.

I’ve seen a few versions of it. Here’s one:


The idea of Hemingway saying this is like attributing “Eat, pray, love” with Shakespeare. Or saying that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Gone Girl. It reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut novel in which he attributes all quotes to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. 

Real Quote: “Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too.”

(Note: Nothing Hemingway has said ever resembles the above platitude, so I figured, why not a good quote from The Old Man and the Sea?)

Interested in reading fiction by the author of this blog post? Check out Books by D. F. Lovett

For more on Hemingway, check out Hemingway Against the Oxford Comma or The Snow Also Rises.


5 thoughts on “Six Things Hemingway Never Said

  1. Pingback: Stop Misquoting Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway. Start Listening and Reading. – What Would Bale Do

  2. CW

    How about this quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald:
    “There are no second acts in American lives.”
    Anybody know exactly where in FSF’s writing we can find this quote?
    I think perhaps the complete quote is
    “There are no second acts in the lives of American cities.”
    Also I read somewhere FSF may have been referring to the typical second act in a typical three act play popular at the time…
    Anyone know about any of this?

    1. There are a few Fitzgerald quotes you see a lot (this one, “show me a hero,” and the one about holding two contradictory ideas at the same time) that are almost never sourced. I think all of them are from his essays, which can be found in The Crack-Up, or maybe his letters. The frustrating thing is that they’re so widely referenced without the original source that it can be really hard to determine and they seem apocryphal.

  3. Anonymous

    Maybe stop looking for word for word quotations from half a century old works and open your mind to the idea that the “idea” or the intention is the real meaning of a quote. Something that can be passed down regardless of comma placement and half assed intellectual “interpretation and debunking” by people who have nothing original to contribute to anything or anyone.

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