Wherefore Art Thou, Edwin Newman?

August 23, 2012 at 3:23 pm Leave a comment

There is street, curb, and sewer line reconstruction going on in our neighborhood this summer.  Between the tooth-rattling vibrations, the piles of broken concrete, and the mountains of dirt, the block seems more like a combat zone than a tranquil suburb.  My pets aren’t sure what to think.  The activity draws them to the front window – reality T.V. for house cats – then sends them scuttling under beds once the earth-tamping starts.  

All this digging and scraping disrupts the morning dog walk routine, too.  The pup strains to head north despite the specter of menacing, noisy earth-moving machinery that dwarfs her by a magnitude of thousands-to-one.  I tug and pull, and eventually have to carry her a block away from the turmoil before she agrees to go another direction.  Gives new meaning to the term “doggedly.” 

She has an engrained habit.  We have walked a pre-breakfast six block circuit north-to-east-to-south and then west back to our front door for several years.  She is stubbornly resistant to altering that route, no matter what.  This, I regret to say, reminds me of…me. 

I just finished reading the double-volume book Edwin Newman on Language.  For those of you who don’t remember him, his 2010 New York Times obituary describes Newman as “the genteelly rumpled, genially grumpy NBC newsman who was equally famous as a stalwart defender of the honor of English.”  Stalwart says it well.  In addition to publishing Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue, about gross misuses of our mother tongue by news outlets, academics, ad agencies, social scientists, and – of course – government officials, Mr. Newman wrote I Must Say, a series of essays on the sometimes sorry state of contemporary culture. 

“Witty, incisive, churlishly frank, and opinionated,” according to one of his critics.  I’d love to be taken seriously enough to be called all those things.  But beyond that, reading these books got me to thinking about my own use of the language, so I decided to review all of my previous posts. 

Ye gad.  I was horrified at the excess fat.  I found sentences that I had trouble following, and I composed them.  (I must have “knowed it when I wrote it,” in the infamous words of one of my father-in-law’s students, being asked to explain an indecipherable answer to a test question.)   

And it’s not as if I just dash these things off and post them without review.  I must go over them a dozen times or more looking for typos and misspellings, but especially trying to weed out unnecessary words and phrases.  Even with two black thumbs, I have better success with my overrun garden beds.  The end result is the same:  allowing the bad to choke out the good. 

I took an adult writing class years ago in which the instructor turned my essay over to a colleague for comment.  “Is the student writing to express or to impress?” was that observer’s feedback.  “Moi?”, I recall thinking indignantly; “Obfuscate meaning through an arrogant propensity to employ overly complex multisyllabic verbiage?  Harrummph.”  

Upon calmer reflection I was able to both admit my guilt and find ways to spread the blame around:  My writing sins definitely trace back to all those teachers along the way who virtually trained me, like a lab rat, to repeat bad behavior.  No food pellets, just the reinforcement of good essay grades. 

Impressing them with vocabulary was apparently what it took, so I learned to bundle enough of their favorite flowery phrases together to present as a bouquet, and I’ll be darned if it didn’t work, right up until my second year of college.  Busted.  But not reformed, as a kind magazine editor would remind me a decade later.  I could almost hear the exasperated sigh breathed into her article rejection note:  “…your meaning is buried in words, too many words.”  

Now, numerous sporadic bursts of serious writing later, I search through my own blog postings like a frustrated gold miner.  Oh, I managed to find a few gems in the pile.  I think.  But I came away believing that it was mostly rubble, and that I owe my small readership and myself a better return on our respective investment of time. 

So…I have taken on the task of editing and revising all those old posts.  My husband thinks that’s a crazy idea (“Does anybody ever go into the archives, anyway?”), but I guess it’s partly a form of writer’s penance.   I’ll feel better about this site if I can get it cleaned up.  Polished and professional.  Or at least a bit more readable.  

And as a reward to those of you who faithfully trudge through this stuff a few times each month, I offer some true jewels of observation from the witty and incisive defender of the English language himself, all taken from A Civil Tongue

            “A civil tongue…means to me a language that is not bogged down in jargon, not puffed up with false dignity, not studded with trick phrases that have lost their meaning.  It is not falsely exciting, is not patronizing, does not conceal the smallness and triteness of ideas by clothing them in language ever more grandiose, does not seek out increasingly complicated constructions, does not weigh us down with the gelatinous verbiage of Washington and the social sciences.” 

Political correctness contributes abuses of its own: 

            “There is a movement among those encouraging the teaching of Indian languages and literature – at South Dakota State University, for example – to refer to Indians as Native Americans and to other Americans as non-Native Americans.  This is a narrow view of nativity, and would make people non-natives of the country in which they were born.  Perhaps they could be given resident aliens’ visas.” 

And then there is bureaucratise, this sample from a study of tax effects on work effort: 

            “The assumed form of utility converts the problem to a two-stage maximization. For any given amount of leisure consumed, the worker wishes to choose the income-maximizing combination of search and work times.  This determines his budget restraint and income-leisure space.  Subject to the constraint, the worker chooses the utility-maximizing bundle of income and leisure.  §Y/§S=0—HvW—W=0. 

            “We call this the optimality condition for job search.  W(S)-HW with U=0.  We move ahead to the point at which we may conventionally assume the utility function to be twice differentiable and concave.” 

The street work taking place outside my window has stretched out from a few days of actual repaving to weeks and weeks of duplicated efforts.  I understand from an informed neighbor that the delays are a result of poor communications between City Hall and the contractor.  Quelle surprise, if you’ll pardon my French.

Entry filed under: Advice For Life. Tags: , , .

Friendship Personified Summer, When It Sizzles

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