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Books in Review: *Words on Words*

our cat bella logoJohn Bremner was a man of many faces and places — priest, husband, professor, writer, friend. His usage book Words on Words, though not as popular or notorious as other titles, will be a sure map to the territory and with one exception, quickly fixed, will not let you down, lead you astray, or swipe your precious baggage.

don speaking logoThat one exception was a misspelling that Bremner made in his manuscript for Words on Words. He misspelled the word millennium. When a copy editor called, he rejected the idea that he could have misspelled a word, a Latinate word no less. Bremner said the copy editor said something like, Look it up, hotshot, and hung up.

I wonder if she introduced herself as Miss Spelling.

Bremner was 1) mortified and 2) contrite.

jon books in review logoThis anecdote I heard in a roomful of copy editors. We were gathered to hear Bremner give a seminar on grammar and usage matters for journalists and their minders.

Copy editors seldom get any respect and usually get reviled for the mistakes that others make and that the copy editors do not catch. Being at this seminar was one of the few atta-boys I got in 14 years of such work. I want to say that Bremner’s throwing us that story was like feeding flesh to sharks, but it was not like that. The response was the dull rage of the back-stopper.

Silence, and an occasional nod.

When Bremner had asked us if anyone knew what was wrong with the word he had written on the board — a misspelled version of millennium — a carefully dressed woman of a certain age, from the one metro in attendance, moved to the front of the class, placed her bling-bright reading glasses on her nose, and squinted at the word.

It should be m-i-l-l-e-n-n-i-u-m, she said.

Bremner bear-hugged her.

We back-stoppers smiled (though many of us also were grinding our teeth at not knowing the right answer; copy editors are competitive).

It is a memorable day.

Notice that I did not say that it was a memorable day. No. For me, it is memorable, like my last roller coaster ride, which also was my first. It is a memorable day in line with one of the many memorable things Bremner said on that day. Bremner explained the sequence of verb tenses, a principle of writing that one follows with or without using, knowing, or understanding the phrase sequence of verb tenses. For example, in reported speech I might write that “the mayor said that he was tired because he had been up all night with a sick aide.”

The simple past tense of said is rightly followed by the more complex past perfect tense form had been up. In speaking and in writing, we do this automatically, but Bremner wanted the back-stoppers to know how to fix the thing if it got broken.

After filing a story on what the mayor said, later on I might be having a beverage with colleagues and say that “the mayor was in full bloom tonight. He really is a pompous twit.”

Here the sequence of past tense verb forms yields to a universal truth on the order of “the moon is round” or “mean people suck”.

Universal truths, even when part of the sequence of tenses usually used in reported speech, take a present tense verb.

“He said the sun is bright, and we said in reply that he was stating the obvious.”

Other treasures that Bremner gave us that day included —

● using vivid quotes in news stories.

● placement of attribution for greatest effect.

● a term for meaningless headlines (crinoline headlines, which cover everything and touch nothing).

● and the roots of the word ukulele.

The day lives on for me like a beautiful rose that blooms in its season with a pleasing regularity.

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John Bremner began as a priest and ended as a professor, at the University of Kansas. Bremner’s students loved him, to judge from their public statements and their private stories. I worked with many of his students during my time in Oregon.

Bremner focused anger on lapses and blank spots in the use of words. I would say, after being in The Presence on two occasions that Bremner by his attitude said, Join me in this anger … focus your anger on fixing broken words and phrases in a broken world.

Okay, that is a lot of me and a scoch of Bremner, but that is what I heard under all the zeal and showmanship and all the loving stories of his students sitting beside me on the rim.

Bremner was large, expressive, and demanding. He had a vigorous salt-and-pepper beard that put out as much effort under his chin as above it. He taught his students through vivid stories and startling, thunderous pronouncements such as Shit! said the Pope or Balls had I but two I would be King, cried the Queen.

The papal pronouncement was meant to illustrate the choosing of quotes with punch. The queen’s lament was meant to illustrate the importance of placing attribution for best effect — Balls, cried the Queen, had I but two I would be King.

Bremner urged us to fix all copy that said anything other than some form of said in reported speech in news stories. He urged us to avoid the sports department’s use of would, such as In time on that day, Bremner would go on to say to us in closing, Meanwhile comma peace period.

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Words on Words, at just over 400 pages, covers most of the words that can make you look silly if you or someone else does not catch the error. The book rewards close reading. The book rewards those who use it like a dictionary. Sampling, even briefly, of this book will give you something of value. After all, who in their right mind would sit down to read a dictionary cover to cover.

Don’t answer that.

Reading  all of even the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, weighing in at 20 pounds, give or take an adverb or two, would give you bragging rights to place beside your reading the entire text ofWar and Peace but also would give you an acute need for reading glasses. Your writing probably would be no better than it had been before you started with the A’s. Reading or reading at Words on Words will improve your writing.

Here is an example of the style that Bremner uses —


Note the spelling. Most of the time ukulele appears as ukelele. The word is Hawaiian for flea, from uku, insect, and lele, to jump, a reference to the fingers flitting across the strings. See also ACCORDION.

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I choose to begin with Bremner rather than one of his many competitors because of my strong memory of him and the obscurity that his book Words on Words has in comparison to word masters such as Fowler or Bernstein, neither of whom will lead you astray. I choose Bremner in hopes that those of you who know the first tier with appreciate my gift of a new source of truth, trust, and joy.

The admonition to instruct and delight drives my own writing. Bremner, too.

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