"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Language evolves but not always swimmingly

(Image from "Open Library")
  
I'm taken aback every time I see the words "convince to." This is a testament to the power of the books written by Edwin Newman many years ago.
Edwin is no longer with us. He was a television journalist back when the leading "network news" filtered out most that was silly, fallacious or provocative. He was also a wordsmith.
Today I'm rather certain Newman would consider his battles to be lost. College English teachers might be in a like situation.
The idea of a complex system of rules for carefully grooming the English language might be dated. This is an age now where a U.S. congressman might send a text message that seems like caveman talk. Brevity and directness are everything.
There has always been something to be said for brevity and directness. When I was young those goals had to be pursued under that complex umbrella of rules Newman subscribed to.
The newsman wrote two books that noted breakdowns in handling of the English language. Manual typewriters were still the norm. People wrote a lot of their stuff longhand with ink pen. People were far less inclined to write things impulsively or to get attention for their material immediately.
Email made communications instantaneous. The speed of communications is something we take for granted today. Young people have grown up in such a world. It seems a miracle we have totally conquered boredom.
I wouldn't trade today's environment for that of my youth. But we are, after all, human. We cannot perfect our environment. Communications are instantaneous but they can be sloppy. I'm not sure kids would be receptive if they were told they need a little more discipline.
And they would certainly view those old (1970s) books by Edwin Newman as quaint. Newman was addressing a world where writing seemed a refined and exclusive craft. He put much stock in how the New York Times handled things.
We were a much more New York Times-centric world then. The political conservatives didn't like that but they were much more confined to a limited space. The explosion in electronic media is what empowered political conservatives.
Newman shamed the New York Times on what he considered rule-breaking with "convince to." We should be so lucky as to be able to focus on an issue like this today, when people type "2" for "to" and don't get laughed at.
I was reminded of the "convince to" thing lately when I saw an informational flyer around Morris. Here's the quote: "Stevens Forward! has teamed up with UMM students to find out how well Stevens County meets the needs of retirees - what would convince you to stay in the county post-retirement, or why you have chosen to stay."
Convince. . .to.
Ahem.
This construction appeared to stick in Newman's craw.
"You may convince that," Newman wrote. "You may convince of. You may not convince to."
So the appropriate wording would be? It would be "persuade," according to the conventional rules. You may persuade someone to act but you convince someone of the truth of a statement or proposition.
It seems silly to assert in this age of "caveman" text messaging (which I don't use), but "convince" should not be used with an infinitive. "Persuade," meanwhile, is quite acceptable with both an infinitive or a "that" clause in both active and passive constructions. As if anybody cares anymore.
Our language is fluid. What starts out as rule-breaking creeps into the norm. We have seen the classroom understanding of "convince" and "persuade" break down. It hardly seems a biggie.
People associated with our august U of M-Morris have no problem "convincing to."
Oh, and there's another nitpicking observation I might make: "Stevens Forward!" has that exclamation point which was omitted in the flyer's text. There is a logo on the flyer that has the exclamation point.
Why would retirees want to stay in Stevens County? I don't know, but our county has lost about 2,000 in population over the last 32 years. I'm skeptical this trend can be blunted by anything like Stevens Forward! or the UMM Office of Community Engagement.
I put a post on my companion website ("Morris of Course") this morning which shares my general assessment of Stevens Forward!
Great ideas to be sure, but perhaps a deficiency with practicality. I invite you to read that post by clicking on the permalink below:
 
UMM came into being when every little town around here had its own football and basketball teams. Middle-age families with kids were in every neighborhood. It seems to me we need to preserve such families as a bedrock for our community life.
Retirees? They appear to be doing well financially relative to younger categories. Is that why we're prioritizing retaining them?
We of course want everyone to stay. But I'm not sure I understand the special concerted push for retirees unless it's that money factor. And that could change if Republicans advance to really seize the reins of government.
Republicans will make austerity more of a shared thing, not just a burden for young people who are coalescing in "Occupy."
That flyer around town asks for volunteers to submit to an hour-long interview by a UMM student. Maybe us older folks should be interviewing them. We could ask if student debt is going to stay manageable, and whether their degrees can truly be parlayed into the intended rewards.
Life is going to be a slog for all age groups, I predict. And it won't be hard to CONVINCE everybody of the soundness of that suggestion.
PERSUADING people to stay here, or to come here to study, may become daunting.
Newman's books were entitled "Strictly Speaking" and "A Civil Tongue." The fact I can remember these titles so long after the fact is a tribute to the late journalist's wisdom. His jaw would drop if he could see the world of cable TV news today.
Not too civil.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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