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 the 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.

Indeed, the only comma I would permit in that sentence would be AFTER the word “finger”, yet despite this omission, the KJV has two extra commas that, to me, seem unnecessary.

The KJV also, incidentally, has a tendency to use random italics (as instanced). I believe that any appeal to the use of the comma much before the mid-18th Century is an appeal to punctuation chaos. Much of the time, then, the comma was purely decorative, a typographic twirl.

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 that the end of the list is coming. A comma before “and” is, therefore, superfluous because the breath before “and” is understood and assumed. The conjunction is signification enough of how the sentence should be read aloud.

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 and a lame attempt to fix an error. It is a desperate attempt to justify bad english. 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!

 

 

After writing this, I sent a brief letter to the Daily telegraph which they printed. I am reproducing it here-

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Just a final point here:

The text on the 50p piece is a variation on the speech delivered by President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 at his inaugural address. Note that the “Harvard comma” is quite rightly in place as this is an American speech. The word “commerce” is replaced by the more alliterative “prosperity”, so it is a shame, given that the Royal mint was adapting the text fairly freely, that a third word beginning with “p” could not be found to complete a good tricolon (I can appreciate the problem, of course- partiality, predeliction – the greeks might have used “philotimo” – better to have started with another letter: accord, abundance and affection, for example). Tellingly, however, we have lost both the “comma” and the word “honest” in the process of developing and circulating the commemorative coin. No one seems to have remarked on the loss of that word, though. I would have thought that the loss of “honesty” was surely greater than the loss of a comma.

“I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none;…”

Chain Reaction

I was doing some work on the development of mediaeval armour mostly because I was shown two pictures which I have copied and both were dated earlier than I think could actually be possible given the quality of armour that they show. Check my notes below (bottom 2 pics).

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This picture is supposed to come from a manuscript dating from the battle of hastings , or is an image of the battle. Almost impossible, I would think from the way the sleeves of chain-mail (the term is itself an anachronism anyway invented by Water Scott) and the helm of the knight in the centre.

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here is a scene from an Armenian manuscript. Deeply charming but cannot be earlier than mid 12th century. The shorted haubergeons stitched onto the surcoats quite apart from the very rounded helms that suggest something between the norman nasal helm and the later sugar loaf.

Anyway, whatever their historical origins, I loved the characters in the two pictures and the way the figures are grouped. There is some sort of animation in both pictures.  And I love the tent in the first picture…

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Episode 1 AMERICAN HISTORY’s Biggest Fibs

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First episode of Lucy Worsley’s new programme screened tonight. Very pleased to have done the illustrations and animation throughout. This is a picture with a few images and quotes that I drew watching the broadcast.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00023vy/american-historys-biggest-fibs-with-lucy-worsley-series-1-1-the-american-revolution

American History’s biggest fibs

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The first of three episodes begins on Thursday on BBC4 this week. I have completed animated linking sequences and inter-titles throughout the 3 programmes as I did in the previous series (“British History’s biggest fibs”) The imagery this time is drawn from American posters and typography- the title sequence itself should remind people of the currency which is a good start!

Lucy, as ever, is brilliant!

 

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Teaching English

below are some tips and vocabulary for writing and especially for getting through the IELTS exam

 

Everyone talks about grammar. At least they do in Russia!

I think this is maybe to miss the real problem in learning English.

One of the most difficult things for english learners is to master vocabulary. Most text-books focus on grammar, because that is something that can be tested and taught in a very formalistic way, but, actually, there is very little grammar in modern English.

The hard work comes from learning and using synonyms correctly. In terms of listening, that mastery of vocab is expressed in a knowledge of collocations- how words stick together. This means that we can anticipate the sort of things we hear because we are used to the way one word naturally attaches to another. Instead of listening to every single word, we listen to the sense of what is being said and anticipate which words will be used.

In terms of the two essays, the graph essay (1) needs to be clear and precise. The second essay needs similar clarity but evidence of development. Idiomatic vocabulary throughout as well as “linking words”

Here are some valuable

 

linking words

now

at the moment

at present

right now

these days

nowadays

in the past

before

then

at that time

years ago

when I was younger

soon

 

ideas:

I think one important thing is

I guess one difference is

I suppose the main difference  between A & B is

 

Causes and Solutions

I imagine it’s because

it appears to be

I guess it’s because

the main reason is

it is caused by

because

I suppose the best way to deal with this problem is

I reckon the only answer is

the best way to solve this is

**there are three important points: firstly (A), secondly (B and thirdly, finally, (C) (this is my preferred option always- the tricolon) This can often come across as very formal so be careful!

 

Giving examples

For example

for instance

such as

like (use in speaking, not so much in writing. Do not over-use this word)

 

Being clear and precise

What I mean is

What I want to say is

As I was saying

 

contrasts and concessions

but

on the one hand (remember two hands) on the other hand

while

although

or

admittedly,

however,

nevertheless,

even though

although

yet

despite

in spite of

still

by contrast

conversely

in comparison

alternatively

another option could be/ might be

 

 

Linking words for writing

in addition

additionally,

furthermore,

moreover,

apparently,

also

not only… but also

as well as

 

consequence

hence

in that case

under these circumstances

accordingly

Because of this,

thus, therefore, so

 

Deduction:

in that case

this implies that

if so, / not

 

giving examples:

to illustrate

to clarify

in other words,

such as

namely

for instance

 

reinforcing:

also,

furthermore,

moreover,

in addition

besides

in the same way that

not only… but also

 

highlighting:

particularly

in particular

specifically

especially

obviously (be careful- if something is obvious, there is no point in saying it, and if it is not obvious, then you have the wrong word!)

of course

particularly

mainly

 

 

generalisations:

usually,

generally

on the whole,

as a rule

 

conclusions:

in brief

to summarise,

overall,

therefore,

(succinctly)

 

Here is a rough speaking test:

Speaking test

Interview

– What is your full name?
– Can I see your ID?
– Where are you from?
– Do you work or study?
– Where are you studying or working?
– Do you like your school or your company?
– Do you want to change your school/company?
– Do you usually drink water?
– Do you prefer to drink bottled or tap water?
– Is bottled water expensive in your country?
– Why is that?
– Do you like shoes?
– How often do you buy new shoes?
– Have you ever bought shoes online? Why / why not?

Cue Card

Describe a part of your country that you find interesting. Please say

– What and where is it?
– How do you know about it?
– What activities do people usually do there?

Discussion

– Why do you think this place is interesting?
– Why do people love to visit some parts of the country?
– Why do people want to settle in certain places?
– What are the main differences between places to visit and to live in?
– Why are people different in different parts of the same country?


 

Next time: vocabulary for Pie charts and graphs (Essay 1)