Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? is a 1974 critique of the decline and abuse of the English language by journalist and former NBC News correspondent Edwin Newman. Newman is not an advocate for Standard English for its own sake, and he is not against the natural evolution of language. His biggest complaints are with politicians, members of the media (The New York Times in particular), and those in academia, who deliberately use language to sensationalize, obfuscate, and bewilder. He writes “for a world from which the stilted and pompous phrase, the slogan and the clich√©, have not been banished – that would be too much to hope for – but which they do not dominate” (p. 32).

Newman covers various and sundry topics, and the book is organized roughly by category, although he moves quickly from one theme to another without much in the way of transition. Newman gets carried away sometimes, and it seems that he’s doing a better job of entertaining himself than he is the reader. For example, his section on the interchangeability of certain names is clever, and the point is taken, but the reader will likely skip pages of his documentation. His delight with his own puns may also be less impressive to the reader. Other sections are inspired – his chapter on sports, in particular.

Politics have not changed much in the 30+ years since Strictly Speaking was published. Newman observes how the elections and political conventions of the sixties and seventies were treated as dramatic, serious, pivotal moments of history – just like now, the candidates treat each election like the most important one ever. And Newman lists the gaffes made by President Nixon, which makes one think that if he were writing this book while George W. Bush was president, Newman may have just given up.

Even responsible users of English can learn something here. Example: Newman laments the incorrect usage of the verb “convince” versus “persuade” (you convince someone of something or that something; you persuade someone to do something; you never convince someone to do something). Be observes the misuse of the word “massive”, which means heavy and solid, not big (although now big has become an accepted definition of it).

Strictly Speaking is an entertaining and illuminating look at modern English. Its 1975 sequel, A Civil Tongue, is just as good, if not better.