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;…”

Boris’ Gambit

Just got out of “the Circle” to find Boris in the middle of an extraordinary Saturday sitting of parliament! I worry that he has now decided to send a message to Brussels without signing it. What worries me most is that this supremely intelligent and confident man is potentially heading down the spineless path of his predecessor, Mrs May. I would urge him to avoid hiding like her behind bureaucratic nonsense and to do all he can to discourage his advisors and alies from embracing a Jesuitical approach to Brexit.

If something must be done, then it must be done clearly and not fudged. We must take proper responsibility for whatever we do. My own wish, of course, is that the Brexit referendum should never have happened at all and that, had it done so, the Remain team should have presented a better case and a more united front.

But having had the Referendum, and having seen the lacklustre efforts of Cameron and Corbyn to rally support for the status quo, I feel we should still have made more of an effort to press ahead against the Brussels’ bullies and show, firstly, that what was done to Greece by the Bureaucrats will not be done to Britain and secondly, that life beyond the EU was viable. Sadly, no one could have forseen the May premiership- all evasion and weeping, a sorry state and Boris must pick up the pieces.

The latest defeat is a noble first stab towards doing something.

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Nigel Farage deal

Deeply concerned to read of potential deals with Nigel Farage as the way to secure a Conservative victory in any General election.

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My concerns go beyond the issue of “deal or no deal”, a mantra that seems to come from a TV game show anyway. I am much more concerned about what bothered me in the past and that has never been properly addressed- specifically, the way the debate over Europe was hijacked by extremists who wanted to promote a racist agenda of their own. In many ways, they succeeded, partly because it suited Mrs May to continue her “hostile environment” and partly, because it was so popular, but it was still racist at its core.

Three moments spring to mind that highlight the racism- the first is the event in 2015 which led to my resignation and to a small moment on TV sparring with Mr Farage – who claimed I was out of my depth- not at all, Nigel! The story was about a nasty racist slur cast by the UKIP MEP David Coburn who confused the name of the Scottish Minister for Europe, Humza Yousaf, with the name of a convicted handless terrorist serving time in a gaol in New York, Abu Hamza. There was never any apology because Farage insisted it was “just a joke- can’t you take a joke?”

No amount of massaging words can disguise the casual racism of the original remark and, moreover, the savage cowardice of doing so, when Humza was actually late and, therefore, not in the studio to respond. This was cheap and nasty and needed to be called out.

The point is that the same joke has come up more than once in UKIP, and, because it was tolerated then, even celebrated by Farage and his cronies, it was taken then as acceptable and remains so in their eyes. Its latest outing was to confuse Sadiq Khan with the leader of the 7/7 bombers. The person who made this joke, the new leader, Richard Braine apparently takes offence when people mock him with the name “Dick-Brain”. Double standards? But again, he does not get it at all.

Whether we accept what elected ministers and Mayors are doing or not, we cannot deliberately confuse these elected leaders in a democratic country with common convicted terrorists and certainly not because we think it funny to mix up one Muslim name with another. This is not Islamophobia or a “fear of Islam”. It is pure hatred and contempt. The fact that Farage did not join me in condemning Coburn tells me that he did not see this as wrong, and the fact that it continues in the party he led, tells me that he must, therefore, continue to take responsibility for something he started.

Beyond this, yet another UKIP leader, Gerald Batten said that Carl Benjamin’s racist tweet to Labour MP Jess Phillips, was also a joke, specifically “I think that was satire” and an example of “free speech”. Batten went on to identify Islam as a “death cult” and to forge greater links, or rather more open links, with Tommy Robinson and the DFLA.

I have always conceded that Farage is a consummate politician and one of the greatest orators at work in politics today.

But, it would be wholly wrong to give a national office to a man who has sired this sort of racist nastiness. To have an election pact is the first step to granting ministerial office. If a pact is necessary, then it must be on the clear understanding that ministerial office will not be an outcome. To see Farage in a British Cabinet would be worse than seeing Corbyn leading it.

 

 

Jo Swinson on EU nationals

 

 

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Articulating the problem of getting through horrendous home office bureaucracy that has been ill-fit for purpose for many years now and that has led me to encounters including a unpleasant hectoring from Andrea Leadsom and an exchange with Theresa May before she became Prime Minister. We must stop this nonsense of parading bureaucracy as a fix-all, esp when the assurances we give in public are contradicted by the paperwork people are required to fill out and the opaque “investigations” that then take place which effectively cannot be challenged. Too much money and respect is wasted on this sort of nonsense.

What we promise, we simply need to deliver. No ifs, no buts, and no mindless pen-pushing.

Rt Hon MICHAEL GOVE MP and IVAN GOLUNOV (Иван Голунов) contrasted

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Simply appalled that following the news about Ivan Golunov’s dreadful arrest on a street I know and imprisonment on cooked-up cocaine charges, today one of our Cabinet ministers admits cocaine use and is interviewed as a potential leader of the party and consequently our Prime Minister.

It beggars belief that this dreadful hypocrite, Gove, has not withdrawn from the leadership race and resigned. We know, from the way he stabbed Boris in the back, that he has no honour and this confirms it. It is made even worse, as Marr pointed out that, under his tenure, the education dept launched a principle that teachers caught in possession of a class A drug would be debarred; Gove countered by saying this principle was introduced by someone else, and that of course he had never lied about his own drugs use, as indeed he had never been asked. Marr pressed him about whether he had lied in filling out the declaration to enter the US. Gove did not think he would be debarred should he become PM.

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He cannot even claim that this was some silly thing he did when he was at school or in university. No, in Gove’s case he was 30 and he should have known better. However, we also know Gove makes a great play about his own Christian belief and practice – here was an opportunity for a man to do the decent thing and point to the great injustices elsewhere in the world. Like Gove, Golunov has been working as a journalist but unlike Gove, Golunov says he has not been playing around with Cocaine. Ironically it is Gove and not Golunov who thinks he is, therefore, destined for the top job!

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Simply astounding.

This is on a day, incidentally when the Russian government starts to block VPN’s in Russia. This effectively stops voices from the West getting through to the locals in Moscow and elsewhere. We know that Russian TV censors and distorts what they publish, and soon there will be no alternative source of information. Incidentally, Kaspersky is all in favour of the VPN ban. Russian-owned Kaspersky, an almighty office-block that I pass every time I am driven from the airport into central Moscow, is one of the major internet security providers around the world. It is all very worrying.

WHAT GOVE wrote in 1999

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EKREM IMAMOGLOU in Istanbul but for how long?

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The current new Mayor of Istanbul- but his position is still being challenged and who will face an odd future as the leader of a council largely composed of AKP councillors.

UPDATE: Monday 6th May:

There will now be another election in 2 months’ time.

HTV in Russia- standards of reporting

This is the second interview as it appeared on HTB (NTV)

There is a problem here – specifically that the words I am supposedly saying, dubbed by a Russian actor, are not in the original interview.  The previous interview that I did before Christmas about a children’s tv series called “Masha and the bear” was equally questionable- but when I asked to see the original footage, I was told this was not possible, and I was assured that the words dubbed were an accurate representation of what I said. In the case of this interview about Brexit, however, the entire interview was also filmed (though not by me) on a mobile phone so it is possible to compare what I actually said with what the tv station felt was convenient for them to broadcast.

There were by their own admission other complaints about the dubbing. I was invited to meet Ms Zeynalova and members of the senior management of the station last week. In the event, I went up to the studio, went through a barrage of (last-minute and quite excessive) security to have tea in a staff canteen with an editor, a charming lad called Andrey who promised to arrange a further interview to correct the station’s errors. So far, nothing has happened. There has been no written apology, and no explanation on air and of course the proffered meeting with senior execs has still not taken place. I wonder whether this sort of thing (what might be called “deceptive dubbing”) is therefore accepted as standard practice. It beggars belief.

I will add to this and post further images and details over the next few days.

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This is a translation of what NTV claims I said, “She even put her neck on the line by saying that she would if the plan was supported, even this didn’t help. Look at it from a different angle. She planned to be another prime minister from the ruling party, after Cameron who did nothing and just went to watch from the side as the county crumbles”

This is actually what I believe I was saying to coincide with the visuals (I take this from the recording made on a phone at the same time and now posted elsewhere on the internet): “She said she was going to resign if she gets the deal through. It’s an extraordinary thing to do to say if I’m successful, I will resign. And if that’s the deal she’s got to do, well, I understand it’s been successful and people are already lining up to compete for the next job of leader of the conservative party, therefore leader of the country and prime minister. It may have had a negative effect because the labour party detests the thought that there could be an even stronger leave voter in place to lead the country after Mrs May goes.”

Here is the original footage: