If you've ever been clobbered by cliches, worried by wordiness, and generally fed up, read Edwin Newman. He began his crusade against wrong-headedness with "Strictly Speaking" (1974) and continued with "A Civil Tongue" (1976). Now he has collected his newspaper columns, written between 1984 and 1987, for "I Must Say."
And Newman has a lot to say. He tells us what bugs him and why. Take the word "incredible." It teeters on the brink of uselessness. Or the phrase "Have a nice day." What have we come to when a recorded message tells you to have a nice day? That kind of absurdity worries Newman, who thinks of himself as a voice crying out for common sense.Unfortunately, that voice sometimes dangles modifiers, commits cliches, and is verbose. But Newman, respected for his wit and eloquence, somehow can get away with a sprinkling of such sentences as this: "Looking back at the World Series from a safe distance, which is to say out of the spitting range, the conclusion is inescapable that in at least one particular, it is not an adornment of American life." Besides, these 600-word commentaries are thought-provoking, entertaining and funny.
We're cluttered, Newman comments, with in-flight movie junk, tobacco spitters, macho mouths, unbalanced budgets, ever-rising ceilings, legal red tape, background music, rock concerts and assorted foolishness.
"Help me, God. These people are crazy," a juror recently shouted in a New York courtroom. The trial was eight months old, with no sign of concluding. The juror was fed up and locked herself in a bathroom. "Just let me go home," she told the judge. It's incipient psychosis or panic, a psychiatrist suggested. Maybe the courts should speed things up, Newman says.
In matters like this, a little common sense can help. That's what this book offers.