Thursday, March 6, 2008

A CIVIL TONGUE by Edwin Newman

A Civil Tongue is an amusing book on language by former NBC News correspondent Edwin Newman, the sequel to his Strictly Speaking. Here, Newman deals with the ridiculous and irresponsible use of English. Newman is not against the evolution of English, nor is he a proponent of Standard English for its own sake. Rather, his gripe is with those who know better and still use it incorrectly.

Those who use unnecessarily big words to either hide the meaning of what they’re saying (politicians) or to make themselves sound important (educators) are some of Newman’s targets. He also goes after sportscasters, advertisers, and most anyone else speaking or writing with any kind of double-speak, redundancy, obfuscation, misuse of words, or fabrication of words. He makes some predictions about where English will go, and some of these have come to pass.

Newman is happy to acknowledge his own language mistakes, including the ones he made in Strictly Speaking. On the whole, Newman’s tone is good-natured rather than patronizing. This is clearly a subject that he cares about, but it is, to some degree, all in good fun.

Strictly Speaking is a humorous book. Newman makes puns and jokes about many of the anecdotes he tells. This is quite often amusing, but can become tiresome. Because of this and the structure of the book (almost 300 pages of anecdotes arranged thematically with little real continuity), it is best consumed in small doses. Those who love English and the self-appointed grammar police will enjoy it.


Here is a sample. Newman is discussing how people have begun using “convince” with the wrong prepositions (you convince someone TO do something):

From an article in the New York Times travel section by a senior editor of a large New York publishing house:
“Here is where we will make love,” Antonio said. “Now you will take off your suit.”
“Listen, Antonio, I told you no,” I insisted. “Do you really think I’m saying it just so I can let you convince me into saying yes? I’m not like that. I say what I mean and I mean no.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “It is time to eat now. Give me the plastic bag.”
From the resignation expressed by Antonio, driven though he was to eating a plastic bag in frustration, we may conclude that people may not only be convinced into doing something, they may also be convinced out of it.