Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ave Atque Vale, Edwin Newman

According to The New York Times’ obituary, Edwin Newman, the pundit, newsman, and defender of the English language who died last month in London at the age of 91, could not abide jargon, idiosyncratic spellings like “Amtrak,” the non-adverbial use of “hopefully,” the conversational filler “y’know,” awkward prefixes and suffixes such as “de-,” “non-,” “un-,” “-ize,” “-wise,” and “-ee”; and using a preposition to end a sentence.

The Times writer goes on to point out that this highly prescriptive approach to English usage had critics, such as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who complained that Newman never cited a dictionary or a standard grammar book to back up his dicta.  “Evidently,” said Nunberg, “one just knows these things.”

Well, yeah.  That’s what being able to speak and write with ease means.  You can’t be stopping every few seconds to verify that this is what Webster or Fowler or Garner will justify.  You simply know what sounds or looks right and you say it or write it.

I’ve never been as insistent as Newman on certain rigors.  Jargon has its place (a contract just doesn’t sound official unless there’s a “party of the first part”), “Amtrak” and its cousins such as “Kwik-Kopy” and “E-Z Pass” have a nice, breezy ring to my ear; “hopefully” has clawed its way to an acceptable adverbial role by simply refusing to give up gracefully; to unionize, theatrewise, is a non-issue to me; and ending a sentence with a preposition has been OK in my book since Winston Churchill (allegedly) said a rule against doing so was the “kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put.”  But y’know, I’m not going to defend “y’know,” which is an abomination.

The important thing is to pay attention to what you say and write. Language usage evolves, and the deadly sin is to let it do so on its own, without the control of the user. Carelessness, not error, is the great enemy of grammar, a sentiment with which I think Newman and Nunberg would both agree, not to mention Webster, Fowler, and Garner. 

As for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, well, he naturally takes an idiosyncratic view:
            If you are lacking proper grammar,
            You do not speak, you only yammer.
            If you’re deficient in your diction,
            It is a monstrous great affliction.
            If you can’t parse a compound sentence,
            Get on your knees and start repentance.
            If you should fail to spell correctly,
            Beg forgiveness most abjectly.
            Still, these faults will qualify you
            To be a Bard on Buffalo Bayou.

1 comment:

  1. I always did like Newman -- just wasn't sure why. Now I realize that it's because he just KNEW when/that he was right!
    With his death, and the recent-ish loss of Walter Cronkite, and the not-at-all-recent deaths of Huntley and Brinkley [just to name a few], we've lost newscasters (and they'd ALL probably hate that term) who actually valued the English language and used it well. Now we have talking heads who are willing to stoop to whatever level it takes to reach the greatest number of viewers, which means writing and talking on about a 4th-grade level. Sad.