Open letter to university heads

Dame Nemat Shafik

The director

London School of Economics

Houghton street

London

WC2A 2AE

 

14th August 2020

 

Dear Director,

 

I am writing with some urgency in the wake of the disastrous A level results and the horrendous bias against students who come from non-selective schools that may have had a blip in recent academic performance and have, therefore, had their grades knocked back.

I hope, this year, that you will follow the example of Worcester College and take on those students who were predicted grades that would meet your requirements and whose teachers were confident they could be expected, in ordinary circumstances, to achieve them.

I look forward to hearing from you personally, in due course, and to celebrating the fact that the LSE, another great academic body with a bold history is ready to challenge a mighty injustice.

Now is not the time to wait and see what the Government will do. You will be judged by your actions and the lead you give in the next few days.

I would like to think that you are on the right side of history.

I am available to help in any way I can.

With best wishes and great respect,

 

Sincerely,

 

Professor TIM WILSON

 

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;…”

As the Philip Green story unfolds on the News

Peter Hain was able to “out” Sir Philip Green because of a 1689 bill that established “Parliamentary Privilege” granting freedom of speech and a right that whoever speaks in the house “may not be impeached or questioned” by a Court. This, then, overturns the various injunctions that Sir Philip had laboured to put in place.

We may , of course, feel that Sir Philip should not have been allowed to “buy” even a temporary injunction. This is a form of privacy afforded the wealthy alone. And certainly the BBC should reflect on their own treatment of celebrities like Cliff Richard… but the law should be blind and should be allowed to get on with its business.

The evident joy in the newsroom should, however, be tempered by a reflection that, frankly, the British media has aided and abetted the sort of bullying behaviour that is alleged and that has been going on all over the place for years.

peter hain and philip green by TIM

 

 

 

3 MPs resign over BERCOW

3 MPs have quit an important committee because it is chaired by the speaker, John Bercow. The issue is bullying which is something that I have spoken about earlier.It is a great shame that the Speaker has decided to hang on for a further year- I am afraid it will end in torrid disgrace, and now would be the time to bow out quickly and with as much dignity as possible. He has been badly advised. He should have gone a few weeks’ ago. This is not about whether he is or is not a bully- I have seen bullies and frankly he does not seem the type, but who knows outside his office. He could be a tyrant over the typewriter. It suggests, however, he is not good at reading the mood– about himself or others. That single ability sums up his job and if he cannot do that he is a lame duck speaker. That alone suggests it is just a matter of time before the good members of the house of commons start to walk all over him.

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Here is my comment on bullying, for what it is worth.

 

 

Constable

Deeply distressing to see the two Russian men claiming to have been in Salisbury to look at a 123 foot spire and an old clock! There is really only one credible reason to visit Salisbury and that is because the Cathedral was painted twice by John Constable. The second painting¬† (immediately below) is about 10 years’ later than the more famous Hay Wain which, incidentally, was in the news not so long ago for having a photo glued to it by Fathers4Justice.

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The other painting was done in 1823; it is a bit brighter. This version (in the V&A) was, nevertheless, considered a bit “dark” and there are brighter versions without the dark clouds currently in Brazil and New York.

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Power and the Pope

I did a small film over the weekend about Plato and power. It was a bit of a rethink of the “How to Be Boss” film but the principles are the same. At what point is power invested in someone and at what point is someone grabbing at power.

The theatre, politics and education are worlds that attract a lot of aggression. People love to create their own empires without necessarily doing anything of value. Sadly, there are always casualties.

film title pope and tim