Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The word according to John B. Bremner

''Jesus Christ once said, 'Where two or three are gathered together . . .' '' Professor Bremner said in a 1984 seminar for newspaper editors. ''But he couldn't have said precisely that. He didn't speak English. And why would he have said 'gathered together'? When you have 'gathered,' you don't need 'together.' ''

I wrote a little yesterday about John B. Bremner, my copy editing instructor at the University of Iowa School of Journalism during the late 1960s. The italicized paragraph above was lifted from his New York Times obituary. Bremner also was one of the few people I've known personally who merited one of those.

Writing about Bremner scares me because the result will be not quite correct in a grammatical sense and most likely I'll misspell or misuse a word or two. Although one of his more obscure students --- and he's been dead since 1987 --- I still hear that booming voice.

Here's a paragraph from the EditTeach.com page introducing a video of Bremner in action, which you may access here. It was filmed before YouTube and 10-cent video cameras, so the quality but not the content falls short of 21st century standards. The video dates from 1986, the year before Bremner died of cancer, and was shot during a seminar at Indiana University.

"Students walked into in Bremner's classroom with anticipatory dread. They knew they could be the subject of a Bremner moment; perhaps the 6-foot-5 white-haired giant would throw open the classroom window and yell to the passing campus: 'Help! I'm being held captive by a roomful of idiots!' Or they could be mesmerized by a Bremner soliloquy on the magic of words; as he wrote in the introduction of his 'Words on Words,' 'To love anything, you must first know it. To love words, you must first know what they are ... They have their own historical and etymological associations, their own romantic and environmental dalliances, their own sonic and visual delights.' "

Here's more Bremner, from the Times obituary:

''I have witnessed the steady growth of literary ignorance during a career of more than a third of a century,'' he wrote in 1980. ''Many of my students arrive in my writing and editing classes as college juniors with an almost total ignorance of English grammar and usage and only a smattering of any foreign language. And these are prospective journalists whom one would expect to be less illiterate. But the blame is hardly theirs. It belongs mostly to their teachers.''

Teaching was a second career for Bremner, who was ordained a priest as a young man. He was nearing 50 when he taught while earning his PhD in journalism at the University of Iowa. He left Iowa in 1969 to accept a position at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, where he taught until retirement in 1985.

In some ways Bremner scarred me for life. I cannot bring myself to use the word "facility" no matter how hard I try. Misuse of the word "ironic" enrages me. Revulsion and contempt follow misguided attempts to work the word "comprise" into a sentence (although I confess to using it sometimes just to demonstrate that it can be done properly).

"Meanwhile," as Bremner often said, "comma peace period."

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