I can understand why Margalit Fox would want to give such prominence to Edwin Newman's two books on usage in her New York Times obituary for for the journalist, who died recently at 91. Newman retired from NBC more than 25 years ago, and people who remember him are likely to be hazier on his journalism than on his 1970's bestsellers Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue, which are still in print (though only in large type and audio editions appropriate to a public of advancing diopter). But I wish they had left me out of it.
His prescriptive approach to English did not win favor everywhere. In an article in The Atlantic in 1983, the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg took Mr. Newman and the author Richard Mitchell to task for writing "books about the language that rarely, if ever, cite a dictionary or a standard grammar; evidently one just knows these things.".
Not that I have any reservations about my criticisms of Newman's books. He was representative of what has become the dominant form of American prescriptivism, a middlebrow entertainment uprooted from its history in literary culture and philology. The genre didn't bring out the best in Newman, but then it doesn't bring out the best in a lot of people. It's striking how many otherwise insightful and clearheaded writers revert to petulant adolescents when the subject turns to usage, as if their sensibilities were permanently fixed around the same time they absorbed their grammatical lore at the business end of Sister Petra's ruler. Hence the familiar tone of operatic indignation laced with adolescent sarcasm, bad puns, arch rusticisms, and drolly self-violating dicta, and generally accompanied by a certain cloudiness about the grammatical particulars — as in this passage from Fox's obituary:
Among the sins that set Mr. Newman’s teeth articulately on edge were these: all jargon; idiosyncratic spellings like “Amtrak”; the non-adverbial use of “hopefully” (he was said to have had a sign in his office reading, “Abandon ‘Hopefully’ All Ye Who Enter Here”); “y’know” as a conversational stopgap; a passel of prefixes and suffixes (“de-,” “non-,” “un-,” “-ize,” “-wise” and “-ee”); and using a preposition to end a sentence with.
But Newman didn't invent this style, and in retrospect he was a lot jollier about it than most other practitioners. And in any case, his books were too slight and miscellaneous to warrant citing their critics in his obituary. As prescriptivist screeds go, Strictly Speaking doesn't belong with classic diatribes like "The String Untuned" (login required), Dwight Macdonald's 1962 take-down of Webster's Third in the New Yorker. But then it's been a long time since prescriptivism could claim defenders of Macdonald's kidney. Talk about going to hell in a handcar…
Anyway, you'd hardly want to judge Newman on the basis of what was just a late sideline to a notable journalistic career. The obituary in the Washington Post recounts an incident that gives a better sense of the measure of the man:
Mr. Newman's most memorable appearance on "Today" came in 1971, when he banished comedian George Jessel from the studio. In a rambling interview, the 73-year-old Jessel likened The Washington Post and New York Times to Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper.
"You are a guest here," a steely Mr. Newman told Jessel. "It is not the kind of thing one tosses off. One does not accuse newspapers of being Communist, which you have just done."
After further strained comments, Jessel said, "I didn't mean it quite that way. . . . I won't say it again."
"I agree that you won't say it again," Mr. Newman replied. "Thank you very much, Mr. Jessel."
"I just want to say one thing before I leave," Jessel added.
"Please don't," Mr. Newman said, as he broke for a commercial three minutes early.
When he came back on the air, Mr. Newman said television had a responsibility to uphold "certain standards of conduct."
"It didn't seem to me we have any obligation to allow people to come on to traduce the reputations of anyone they want," he said, "to abuse people they don't like."
Journalists of that kidney aren't too much in evidence these days, either.