Language, Round 2
To the Editor:
In his reply [Letters from Readers, May] which, incidentally, is not a reply, to my letter about his article on language [“Why Madame Bovary Couldn't Make Love in the Concrete,” February], Joseph Epstein writes: “I should prefer not to respond to Edwin Newman’s letter, but instead allow its large-hearted modesty to speak for itself.” No doubt. That is easier than dealing with the points I raised. It is also in keeping with the laziness of his article. But modesty, or its absence, is not the issue. My letter has not been answered.
There remains the matter of Mr. Epstein’s own English. Why “should prefer,” and, in reply to another correspondent, “I think I should like to pass on this one, too. . .”? Why the conditional tense? How does it apply in these cases?
It is shameful that COMMENTARY gave space to someone as poorly qualified as Mr. Epstein is to write about the language.
New York City
Joseph Epstein writes:
The reason I did not answer Edwin Newman’s original letter at length is that I thought it—think it still—unworthy of response. In it Mr. Newman claims his own work has been responsible for the renewed interest in careful language; he prattles on about his publishing success; he implies that he has been the victim of much plagiarism; he suggests that the reason I did not name him in my COMMENTARY article is spite, since I am “an academic of the kind I hold responsible for much of the turgid nonsense that today disfigures English.” But Mr. Newman’s true difficulty is that he feels he does not receive all the credit due him.
But—and I would rather not have had to say this—the real reason I did not mention Mr. Newman is that, however many copies his books have sold, however many invitations he receives to speak at universities, however high his own opinion of himself, I do not think he has a very interesting mind. This is a judgment I base on my acquaintance with his work.
As for Mr. Newman’s criticism of my use of the word “should,” perhaps he does not know that in the first person “should” is quite legitimately preferred to “would” as “shall” is to “will.” I could, I suppose, return his criticism by pointing to his use of the word “incidentally” in the first line of his letter—a word that H.W. Fowler remarks is not, in this usage, employed “by the best writers.”