Philip Pullman is wrong

Today, the great Pullman has hit the news over the proposed new 50p piece. He comes in slightly late because Hughie Grant has already gone on record saying it should be boycotted. But Pullman points to the grammar and the absence of what is called “the Oxford comma”.

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The Guardian has run the story and it should know better.

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However, the “oxford comma” is now in teh National curriculum. I cannot tell you how often I have fielded calls about this bit of grammar and how irritated it makes me.

Let’s be frank here: the oxford comma, even admitting examples cited in the King James’ Bible, is a modern invention. The KJV is obsessed with the comma, after all. Here is an example from the first edition with a comma that would never be tolerated today:

Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

It also, incidentally, has a tendency to use random italics. Indeed, any appeal to the use of the comma much before the mid-18th Century is an appeal to chaos. Much of the time, the comma was purely decorative.

We did not know about the “oxford comma” until 1978 when Peter Sutcliffe drew attention to it in a review of some of the idiosyncracies of the Oxford University Press (OUP). He suggested that its origins lay in the middle of the 1st World war and that it was introduced to suppress ambiguity when lists were being trotted off.

This seems unnecessary.

When we read aloud, I always assumed a comma denoted a potential breath. I always took a breath before I got to the end of a long list- it seemed appropriate and added drama. However, the older grammar-books all insist that there is never a comma before “and”. And with good reason. (Also, of course, they tell us never to begin a sentence with a conjunction- note TW!) Because the “and” simply signifies the end of the list is coming. A comma before “and” is, therefore, superfluous because the breath before “and” is understood. The conjunction is signification enough of how the sentence should be read aloud. It is all the way through the King James version of the Bible.

I believe the oxford comma is actually the Harvard comma and is first promoted in the style guide for the New York Times. Many examples have been posted that are genuinely made less ambiguous by the insertion of the comma, but frankly a bit of re-phrasing would be better. Look at this example-

“By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

It is argued here that the Oxford comma saves Nelson Mandela from the suggestion that he might have been a dildo-collector.  However, with the comma added, he might also yet remain an “800 year old god”, which I think he was not. The only way to salvage this text is, therefore, to re-write it. The text is wrong. It is sloppy writing. The oxford comma, in other words, is about inadequacy. The Oxford comma is not ours, it is not necessary and the Royal mint is quite right to ignore it.

As for the proposed 50p piece, I certainly never wanted it, but if it promotes debate about perverse and frankly foreign punctuation, then it is a coin I will henceforth treasure.

Bring it on!

Scottish independence

Nicola Sturgeon’s call for INDYREF 2 has been rejected again as was probably to be predicted. What is now important, though, is not the rhetoric from the First Minister which is impressive as ever, but what Westminster will do to convince Edinburgh that the Union is robust and worthwhile. If Scotland feels unloved, then it is up to Boris to demonstrate clearly that that is not the case.

It is worth noting how much the Uk has depended on Scottish statesmen and women and on Scottish businesses over the last 250 years. In Westminster, I think there have been at least 10 Scottish prime ministers (12 if we count David Cameron as Scottish and bother to note that Gordon Brown’s tenure took place * see below). For our economy, we can go back to Adam Smith and William Paterson, endless advances in medicine as well as the first country to educate women as doctors (though they never actually got their degrees)- think Sir James Y Simpson, Alexander Fleming, James Braid, even Arthur Conan Doyle; for transport, we look to Thomas Telford, but even when it comes to basic transport, it was the Scot, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who invented the bicycle and meanwhile it was the Scottish law in 1772 which dictated that we all drive routinely on the left, some 60 years before it became a law in England. Alexander Bell! Oh for goodness’ sake! Even when I was looking at the development of radar in Daventry a few years’ ago, it was still a Scot, Robert Watson-Watt, who did it!

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“Tories are terrified of Scotland’s right to choose – because they know that when given the choice we’ll choose independence.

“Tories have no positive case for the union – so all they can do is attempt to deny democracy. It will not stand.

“The problem for the Tories is the longer they try to block democracy, the more they show the Westminster union is not one of equals and fuel support for independence. This response [is] predictable – but also unsustainable and self defeating. Scotland will have the right to choose.

“Scottish government will set out our response and next steps before the end of this month – when we will also again ask Scottish Parliament to back Scotland’s right to choose our own future.”

*list of scottish prime ministers in UK

John Stuart 1762

George Hamilton Gordon 1852

William Gladstone 1864, 1880, 1886, 1892

Lord Rosebery 1894

Arthur Balfour 1902

Henry Bannerman 1906

Andrew Bonar Law 1922

James Ramsey MacDonald 1924, 1929

Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home 1963

Tony Blair 1997

Gordon Brown 2007

David Cameron 2010

 

 

 

 

The US Circle

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Just about to do the final Podcast for the US circle. What a pleasure watching these 12 episodes. The joy of watching Shubham telling us that social media is the bubonic  plague of modern times.  The guy who doesn’t know flirting or emojis. I felt a distinct connection with him and sent him an email immediately!!

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Boris the submariner

Today Boris explained to Dan Walker that he was surfacing through the ice as a submarine. Bizarre. Colourful and typically Boris! “The submarine is crashing through the ice floes. The conning tower is emerging through the ice floes right now. Here I am. I gave two press conferences yesterday. I want to be as available as I possibly can.” (not on holiday as you can see)

About extradition from the US: “I’ll be clear with you, the chances of America responding by sending Anne Sacoolas to this country are very low. That’s not what they do,”

Brexit: “Bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”/ with trade deals “epically likely”

About FLYBE: “It’s not for government to step in and save companies that simply run into trouble.People will understand that there are limits commercially to what a government can do to rescue any particular firm. But what we will do is ensure we have the regional connectivity that this country needs. That is part of our agenda of uniting and levelling up.”

Harry and Megan: absolutely confident they will manage “much more easily without running commentary from politicians”

The North: giving “people the chances to exploit their talents.”

Iran nuclear deal: “If we’re going to get rid of it, let’s replace it with the Trump deal. That’s what we need to see. President Trump is a great dealmaker by his own account and many others.”

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Alex Hobern from The Circle Series 1

Last week, I went to see Alex who won the first season of the Circle. We made a few videos each, the first part of mine I have just uploaded here.

Alex tested me on acronyms and I was fairly useless. It follows on from an exchange I had in the Circle with Woody. Alex’s video is here:

 

Here is my drawing of Alex:

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Alastair Campbell

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An absolutely fantastic friendly from Campbell and Clarke showing us EXACTLY how to do it. Here, then, is the quest of the day- How to get Johnson to steal a chip from New Labour and unite an enlarged middle of his party as well as silence the fruitcakes and loonies at both ends. At the same time, how to unite and bring together a frankly divided country and to focus on reality rather than a never-ending “what might have been”.

And now to Alastair Campbell: I was so impressed by this man. He has the mind to cut through all the nonsense and to see what needs to be done practically. He also demonstrated a charm and ease that I had thought was vanishing in the corridors of Westminster. I am deeply heartened by this programme and what I saw today. Well done, all!

To see these two men spar was a rare insight into the carefully-guarded secret of centrist politics; it is self-deprecatory, undecided, but remorseful and actually embarrassable- ultimately, it can be held responsible (or they can) which is more than can be said for the Boris bus, Farage’s madness, May’s dithering (and hiding behind bureaucracy) or Corbyn’s dogmatic socialism (I enjoyed Ken Clarke’s observation that Corbyn was “naive”: exactly.) Oh what a joy to see intelligence so casually and confidently displayed.

There is certainly hope for the future!