TV could use a dose of Newman

Published 8:32 am Monday, December 13, 2010

Edwin Newman died in August at age 91 in Oxford. I am much indebted to him for what I learned from and through him about effective English language usage, and I miss him. Edwin Newman should be studied and then emulated especially by radio on-mike and television on-camera people today.

Newman enjoyed an undisputed reputation as a guardian of grammar, usage, and linguistic good manners. All of which is almost desperately needed by much of the younger generation of his craft. He was “peeved by the sloppy and pretentious use of the English language” and spoke out forcefully and eloquently in corrective challenge. Writers, too, need to learn from him, but he was primarily an oral communicator and his observations and instruction apply more directly to radio and television.

I have devoured his three books on language and urged my writing and speech students to read them. First came “Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?” (1974), and this immediately became a best-seller. Appreciative readers clamored for more and he provided more with “A Civil Tongue” (1976) and then “I Must Say: On English, the News, & Other Matters” (1988).

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Newman retired from NBC News in 1984, but continued to employ his almost encyclopedia knowledge and masterful language skills in PBS documentary series. For many years, he chaired the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He was the only person who has hosted two presidential debates as well as two editions of Saturday Night Live.

Both the “written and spoken word,” he preached, “should be direct, specific, concrete, vigorous, colorful, subtle and imaginative….It is something to revel in and enjoy.”

I think of Edwin Newman every evening as I watch television news. These people need Edwin Newman. I won’t any more hear Newman, but his absence is the more painful by what I do hear. I have heard of “potential origin,” “shared in common,” “7 p.m. tonight,” “he was visually seen,” “the real winner,” and “using a suspended license.”

These are in the category of you-don’t-say or what-else?: “He admitted killing her several times,” “arrested for stabbing another man,” “remembered the fire as if it happened today” (it did), “a bridge where three people have already died,” “melted snow covered the body,” “the heart belonged to a deceased donor,” “23 tornados alone hit Minnesota,” “the man was beaten to death by someone,” “wore a facemask over this face.”

“Shakespeare would have been 445 years old today” (if the guy had only tried harder). “Parks have rules set aside for sledding” (lucky for the kids, no one knows where). “The dog swam to an uninhibited island” (and received an excited welcome).

Constant references are made to when a singular event “first” occurred. “He was first rushed to the hospital” (where next?). “The leak was first discovered” (then forgotten until the next time it was discovered).

“The canal was first built 100 years ago” (then filled in to be built a second time).

A favorite word they just can’t get straight is “alleged.” “He was charged with allegedly shooting…” There is no law against allegedly shooting; the crime is shooting, and he is alleged to have done so. Once “charge,” “arrested,” “accused,” or “is said to” is used, “alleged” is not so much redundant as contradictory. “The mayor confessed to allegedly misbehaving,” “said the video allegedly shows,” “she said he allegedly made improper advances,” “witnesses said they left the bank allegedly shooting at customers.”

Best of all: “The girl was beaten to her alleged death.”

One grammar understanding could correct several errors each broadcast, especially in weather. “Like” introduces a phrase and “as” introduces a clause. So, it is, “As I said…”

After a day of networks’ unbroken reporting a mass shooting, the local channel boasts, “There was a mass shooting today; we’ll tell you about it at six.” (News only if it actually happened in a Catholic church.) “The sun rose this morning; we’ll tell you where at six.”

I’m not kidding about any of these. I have date, time, channel, and name for each of these and many more. (Except the last one, but I’ll listen at 6.)

Where is Edwin Newman when we need him?