Edwin Newman, Defender of Good English

Edwin Newman, the genteelly rumpled, genially grumpy NBC newsman who was equally famous as a stalwart defender of the honor of English, has died in Oxford, England. He was 91.

A blurb on the back cover of Edwin Newman’s phenomenal bestseller Strictly Speaking, quotes a reviewer who described the erudite author as “a glass of chilled wine awash in a sea of tepid Tab.”

A working newsman much of his life, Edwin Newman’s books caused even the careful writer to stop and think about what clichés he was writing — a difficult task for a newsman on deadline or even a journalist with time to spare.

How often before Strictly Speaking and its sequel, A Civil Tongue did we pause and even cringe before writing of a labor-management agreement that had been “hammered out” (the workers brought their tools) in “the crucible” of a “crisis” — or worse — a “crisis situation.” How often did some crisis, real or imagined, lead us to a “major milestone”?

The genius of Edwin Newman was in his ability to make “Major Milestone” report for duty and make us notice him when he stood at attention and saluted smartly.

Newman’s famous books are now more than 30 years old and he goes to his reward as one who tried to stem the tide of bad grammar and careless usage of the English language.

Recognizable for his balding head and fierce dark eyebrows, Edwin Newman was known to three decades of postwar television viewers for his erudition, droll wit and seemingly limitless penchant for puns.

He began his association with NBC in the early 1950s and was variously a correspondent, anchor and critic there before retiring in 1984. During the sixties, he was host of the interview program “Speaking Freely”

He moderated two presidential debates — the first Ford-Carter debate in 1976 and the second Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984 — and covered some of the signal events of the 20th century, from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Newman’s best-known books, both published by Bobbs-Merrill, are “Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?” (1974) and “A Civil Tongue” (1976).

In them he declared what he called “a protective interest in the English language,” which, he warned, was falling prey to windiness, witlessness, ungrammaticality, obfuscation and other depredations.

Despite his acclaim, Mr. Newman’s constitutional waggishness kept him from taking himself too seriously. In 1984, the year he retired from NBC, he appeared on the network as a host of “Saturday Night Live.” (One of the show’s sketches portrayed a distraught woman phoning a suicide hot line. Mr. Newman answers — and corrects her grammar.) A few years before that he delivered the news, in front of a studio audience, on David Letterman’s NBC morning show. He was also a guest on the game show “Hollywood Squares.”

In 1996 Mr. Newman shocked the journalistic establishment by serving as the anchor of the USA cable channel program “Weekly World News,” a short-lived television version of the supermarket tabloid. Among the “news” items Mr. Newman introduced was a report on a South Seas island tribe that worshiped the boxing promoter Don King.

“Apparently it is thought that my presence lends some authority,” Mr. Newman told The Washington Post that year. He added, “If I’m leading into a story about a couple with a poltergeist in their lavatory, I have to do it soberly.”

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.

He will be missed.

Thanks for segments of this piece go to Margalit Fox of The New York Times and Jack Kenny of the New American


About Gwendolyn McIntyre

Author, editor, businesswoman, musician, lover of jazz and horses. Chief investigator of all things that go BUMP in the night.
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