Friday, May 1, 2009

Strictly Speaking. Edwin Newman.

Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? Edwin Newman. Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1974.

Why read it? Newman’s rant about the sloppy, unthinking use of the English language is, first of all, funny. Of course, we’re probably laughing at ourselves. I know I am—and I’m supposed to be an English teacher. My English, especially when I speak, is less than precise. I use “y’know” much too often. I repeat myself, I don’t think before I speak. I’m verbose. I use clichés when I can’t think of the precise word that I need. So his book is a reminder of how to speak and write clearly, thoughtfully and concisely. I need that.

Sample quotes:

“…the state of the language is a commentary on the state of our society.” p. 1. ………. “It is at least conceivable that our politics would be improved if our English were….” p. 5. ………. “If we were more careful about what we say, and how, we might be more critical and less gullible.” p.5.

“Those for whom words have lost their value are likely to find that ideas have also lost their value.” p. 5. ………. “Harry Truman used to say ‘irrevelant’ and stress the third syllable in ‘incomparable’; but Mr. Truman never had any trouble getting his points across.” p. 6. ………. “Television…exalted the picture and depreciated the word.” p. 11.

“The prevalence of “y’know” is one of the most far-reaching and depressing developments of our time, disfiguring conversations wherever you go…. Attend meetings at NBC and elsewhere in which people of high rank and station, with salaries to match, say almost nothing else.” p. 14. ………. “Most of us will never speak…succinctly or concretely; we may, however, aspire to; for direct and precise language, if people could be persuaded to try it, would make conversation more interesting, which is no small thing; it would help to substitute facts for bluster, also no small thing; and it would promote the practice of organized thought and even of occasional silence, which would be an immeasurable blessing.” p. 18. ………. “The desire for weightiness even creeps into the language of television weather forecasters. Why ‘major thunderstorm activity’ is…preferred to ‘major thunderstorms’ [represents the] national affection for the ‘activity.’ ” p. 23.

“ Massive’ doesn’t even mean ‘large’ anymore. It goes by without registering. Means nothing.” p. 29. ………. “You may ‘convince that’; you may ‘convince of’'; you may not ‘convince to.’ ” p. 32. ……. “Why do American politicians invariably say ‘I would hope’?” p. 34. ………. “A ‘serious crisis’ is the only one to have…like ‘true facts.’ ” p. 35. ………. “Politics has a way of bringing on meaningless language.” p. 65.

“People who say ‘judgmental’ think they are important.” p. 70. ………. “Another approach to nominating is the alliterative. ‘Richard Nixon, one who had demonstrated courage in crisis from Caracas to the Kremlin.’ ”. p. 92. ………. “The answers in sports interviews are purely ritualistic, but nobody minds.” p. 152. ………. “ Putting it all together’ in sports was identified as the key to success a few years ago, and it has swept all other explanations before it.” p. 153.

“There is no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English, but it must be considerable.” p. 155. ………. “…nobody takes medicine, but rather medication.” p. 2. ………. “There are those who think it is better to say ‘impacted on’ than ‘hit.’ ” p. 3.

And finally, this list of clichés: “You’ve go to be kiddin’.” “It’s a bad scene.” “How does that grab you?” “Just for openers.” “It’s a fun idea.” “Fantastic.” “It’s the ‘in’ place.” “Is he for real?” “Back to square one.” “That’s the name of the game.” “Who’s counting?” “Bottom line.” “Wild.” “Would you believe?” “Out of sight.” “Lots of luck.” “What can I tell you?” “What have you done for me lately?” “Is alive and well.” “It’s a whole new ball game.”

Comment: I’m guilty on all counts. You and I both could add to the list of clichés, sports and otherwise. My favorite sports expression is Alan Iverson’s “I should have went to practice.RayS.

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