- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003


By John McWhorter

Gotham Books, $26, 279 pages


The subject of John McWhorter’s new book is one of great importance, since “Doing Our Own Thing” is concerned with, not just the loss of eloquence, but the loss of respect for eloquence and an understanding that its loss is a loss. “And beyond the realm of six-pack, cell-phone ‘talk,’” Mr. McWhorter writes in his introduction, “there is indeed something that we’re losing in America in terms of the English language. Namely, a particular kind of artful use of English, formerly taken for granted as crucial for legitimate expression on the civic stage, has virtually disappeared.”

The sentiment expressed is itself both “crucial” and “legitimate” (in spite of the faint rumblings one can hear in the syntax), for Mr. McWhorter’s prose is colorful. But there are signs of carelessness that are incompatible with a book about style, which is essentially what this book is. Implicit in lamenting the loss of eloquence is one’s obligation to do so eloquently.

Mr. McWhorter contrasts Betty Furness (a long-ago TV personality) with Robin Meade, whom he characterizes as “the typically white-bread poised, coiffed American anchor” (does the fact that the author is an Afro-American male make this comment racist and/or sexist?). He points out that the former “spoke,” whereas the latter simply “talked.” This is a useful distinction, to be sure, and one essential to the book’s argument.

That argument is developed thoroughly and in a breezy, often florid, style, which would have seemed unthinkably eccentric and gauche to the pundits of those elevated traditions of the Past mourned by Mr. McWhorter. Their loss is, indeed, a “degradation of language,” as the title proclaims. Still, this sort of liveliness is not only acceptable today, but often admired. And some of the passages are substantive, many circling back to the main argument.

The following passage (in spite of Mr. McWhorter calling the centuries “a dictionary”) is worthy of the subject: “A written standard variety [of language], taking advantage of the permanent treasure-box of vocabulary over the centuries termed the dictionary, allows a degree of precision and nuance that spoken language usually does not …”

But too much of the book is disappointing: The tone is often self-infatuated and patronizing, for Mr. McWhorter talks down to the reader, gratuitously relating much of his argument to himself and expressing obvious opinions as if they were his personal discoveries. Furthermore, the writing teems with sloppy diction, tangled syntax, snarled logic and just-plain-bad grammar.

Consider this passage, in which the author half-playfully ties 1965, the year of his birth, with the time, generally, when America lost its love for language: “It just happens that this is around when color became default on television and in films, such that a childish part of me sees America before 1965 in black and white and America afterward in kodacolor. I often half want to ask people older than me what it was like when they woke up one morning and the world was in color.” (As an example, this is not, alas, isolated.)

It’s too bad that such a flawed book should have been written by an Afro-American, for the black experience can surely provide an interesting perspective on the issue Mr. McWhorter has chosen. It possesses, on the one hand, a model in the form of the high-rhetoric tradition of Afro-American churches, but on the other hand it bears some responsibility for the vulgarization of speech, best exemplified by rap music. The author is more comfortable with rap music than many people, whose disapproval may have something to do with racial bias on both sides (although Mr. McWhorter claims that 70 percent of those who listen to rap music are white).

It is obvious that with more care, this could have been a better book. There are flashes of good writing: Regarding an eighth-grade test for schools in Kansas in 1895, making what today would be considered astonishingly sophisticated demands upon the student, the author observes: “In our America, we would never think of expecting this kind of magisterial command of the mechanics of language from, well, anybody.”

Nevertheless, a magisterial command of language is precisely what this book lacks. And it’s a pity, because it contains a rich variety of literary, historical and pop culture references. But the simple fact is, much of “Doing Our Own Thing” reads like a draft that has not even been proofread, let alone labored over. These are pains that even the masters of prose — especially those of the very mandarin style whose loss Mr. McWhorter laments — are required to take if they understand that writing is a high and demanding art, not “jiving” (a term that, oddly, is not listed in the book’s index) or something to be dismissed as mere talk.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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