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!

 

Some recent pictures

I have been drawing pictures over the last few days. Here are some of them along with a link to my “Middle of the week” video. I shall try to keep up a mid-week vlog until Christmas.Agary Rhodes by TIM

There is a big debate about anti-semitism in the Labour party. It seems to me that this is really a debate about the quality of leadership that is offered by Jeremy Corbyn, and Miriam Margolyes, a committed Labour supported and of course a Jewish actor, yesterday on Channel 4 put it rather succinctly.

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The question remains whether the Chief rabbi is right to get involved in politics during an election. He talked about “a poison sanctioned from the very top – has taken root” but what he well knows is that this has been ongoing for a good few years. It is nothing new. So the newsworthy issue is the fact that the Chief rabbi has spoken out at a time that is judged to cause maximum damage to the Labour campaign. What is generally agreed is that Corbyn has not dealt with the underlying issue well enough and that there is a swelling and vocal group within labour that smudges the distinction between being Jewish and being Israeli. There is a distinction between the two and Miriam Margolyes makes it adroitly in her interview (she goes further in fact and says she is not a zionist and that there are many things about the current state of Israel that need to change. She emhasizes that she does not in any way question the existence of the state of Israel or its legitimacy. I would be more cautious than Margolyes and simply point to the impeachment of Netanyahu as a demonstration that the rot is now identified). It is about language and about the way anger can slip into prejudice, but it is also about mob mentality and Corbyn fails to understand this. When it comes to leadership, it is not enough to look at individual failings but to strike at the problem. The problem is a nasty use of language and a casual disregard for how it is perceived. In the end, it is about arrogance.

The Chief rabbi did not specifically tell people to vote against Labour. He urged them to vote with “conscience”. He also said that there were 130 cases of anti-semitism in the labour party that had not yet been processed. (There were 635 complaints at the beginning of the year)

To prove the point of his criticism, however, on 4 occasions today Corbyn has refused to apologise to the wider Jewish community for his failure to stamp out anti-semitism in the Labour party. He has admittedly, in the past, now apologised for calling Hamaz and Hezbollah “friends” back in 2009 and has eventually permitted labour’s definition of anti-semitism to be brought in line with that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Diane Abbott today, however, said she did not think Jewish people were “anxious and frightened”. I suppose she knows Jewish people better than the chief rabbi, or is this another instance of the “arrogance” of the labour leadership? To their credit, Labour MPs seeking re-election, Wes Streeting (for Ilford North) and Jess Phillips (Birmingham) have both apologised to the Chief Rabbi for the way this has been handled, saying they will do whatever they can to “win back trust” in the community. Again, their apology suggests the leader remains out of sync.

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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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David Cameron

 

 

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Why Cameron is wrong

I was annoyed by Gove a few months’ ago and now it is Cameron who makes me mad! Astonishing! Conceited and determined in like manner but in this case just to sell books, Cameron dishes the dirt and in the process finally fesses up to his schoolboy demeanours, just about, that saw a serious number of older boys expelled from Eton, and the whistle blower blacklisted and forced to move out of his house and bunk up with one of the beaks because of the bullying presumably orchestrated to support Cameron who has always been able to wriggle out of a tight spot and has always been able to charm friends in high places. Till now. The problem with charm though is that it is a form of magic and in the end, it masks something hollow or just plain wrong and dirty. This is Morgan le Fey not Merlin we are talking about and for the record, for all his cleverness at the dispatch box, I think Cameron is hollow. He is also demonstrably a bad loser.
Now he says that the leave campaign “left the truth at home”. That may be so and we may also have got the wrong result but the reason is because Cameron and his cronies put forward a weak and uncharismatic campaign where greed and an arrogant image of what this toff thought we wanted eclipsed any talk of duty and responsibility.
Across the channel Europe is tearing itself to pieces and Cameron’s response was to invite us to do the same to ourselves! What madness! If the leave campaign was appalling, and so was the remain campaign and Cameron must shoulder that responsibility. He played the game by rules laid down by Farage. This is why people often said they could not make up their minds. More than that, he gambled twice with other people’s lives and twice risked “the uncertainty and division that followed” a referendum. What madness and what conceit. Now when a gentleman would keep mum he rakes up this mud again and dirties the pond with more excrement of his own making. and as for the cannabis’ admissions- about time and probably the thin end of the wedge but for now, time for Cameron, to hang his head in shame, hoard the cash from the gutter-press memoir, come out of the garden shed and join Gove in the list of smug hypocrites who had the experience and opportunity to do better. This is not a man who deserves any future office or honour. As Bercow once said, “he can take it from me that he is finished.” The exit door opens – time to make good on his promise to go.

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.