Monday 3 February 2020

The Brexit Comma, among other things

I was blearily waking up in a Singapore hotel, en route back to Blighty, when Brexit happened, so I missed all the fun. Before that, in my long sojourn in New Zealand, I'd missed most of the news from Britain (and was not sorry) – but one story that did reach me was the hooha over the Brexit coin and its missing comma. When this unlovely 50p coin (can anything seven-sided be beautiful?) was issued, Philip Pullman, writer, Europhile and Oxford man, urged a boycott – on grammatical grounds. 'The Brexit 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma,' he tweeted, 'and should be boycotted by all literate people.' Stephen 'Stig' Abell, editor of the TLS, joined in, claiming that 'the lack of a comma after "prosperity" is killing me'. Really?
  The legend on the coin reads 'Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations' – the meaning of which is perfectly clear, especially when seen laid out on the coin. However, there should, strictly speaking, be a comma between 'prosperity' and 'and friendship', as the phrase 'with all nations' applies only to 'friendship', not to 'peace' or 'prosperity'. This missing comma is not, however, an 'Oxford' (or 'Harvard' or 'serial') comma. I am myself no friend of the Oxford comma, but I would (in such a formal context) happily insert a comma.
  The true Oxford comma is a comma between the penultimate and last items in any list, e.g. 'Tom, Dick, and Harry'. This, it seems to me, is jarring and unnecessary, and narrows the scope for shades of meaning. Sounding what we are reading in our heads, we naturally read a comma as a short (the shortest) break between words, and there is obviously no audible break between 'Dick' and 'and'. The comma has the effect of isolating 'Harry' – which can be useful if we want to say something about Harry and not the other two, e.g. 'Tom, Dick, and Harry who had decided to lunch by himself'. The ability to make this distinction is lost when the Oxford comma is applied automatically to all lists. And the comma used as above – and as with the 50p coin – is not an Oxford comma; it's a useful and sensible comma, as against a pedantic one. English English wisely purged itself of its excess of commas some years back, leaving them to the comma-loving Americans. Now, thanks to the ever widening reach of American English, it seems we're getting many of them back. But some of us – in fact quite a lot of us – are still resisting the Oxford comma.

Towards the end of my New Zealand stay, I ran out of reading material, so I had another scout around Wellington's second-hand bookshops. Once again I found a book I'd never seen before and didn't know existed. Called The Elsewhere Community, it's the text of Hugh Kenner's 1998 Massey Lectures, described on the back cover as a 'grand tour of books, writers and places both physical and of the mind'. It argues that western culture has an enduring need to find stimulation 'elsewhere', whether on the 18th-century Grand Tour or, in the case of the 20th-century modernists, in self-imposed exile – or, in more recent times, in the disembodied, interconnected world of the internet. This theme is woven in with that of mentorship, a thread that Kenner follows through his own encounters with, among others, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and T.S. Eliot (a very amusing account of an awkward dinner at the Garrick). The Elsewhere Community is essentially an amiable, slightly repetitive ramble around some of Kenner's preoccupations – an old man's book (he was 75 at the time) – but it's thoroughly enjoyable in its relaxed, effortlessly elegant way, and of course anything Kenner wrote is worth reading.
  The Elsewhere Community is also very short, and I had finished it long before the endless flight home ended. Having exhausted the delights of the available in-flight entertainment – finally watching Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (a masterpiece) and enjoying Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood much more than I expected to – I was reduced to rereading my own book, in which I discovered yet one more typo. Said book gets a cool and wonderfully patronising review from Simon Heffer in this month's Literary Review. Still, it's a full page, with an eye-catching picture, so I'm not complaining...


  1. Perhaps a moment of reflection would have improved the syntax of the coin. (And couldn't "with all nations" also qualify "peace"? The US has generally been at peace with most nations, but often enough at war with one or more.) I believe John F. Kennedy had been dead for a year or so before his image appeared on a coin.

    It seems appropriate that you should have gone halfway around the world to purchase The Elsewhere Club. In my own copy, purchased used but much nearer home, the author's note on page xi begins by saying "The book you are holding was not written to be a book; it contains the scripts for five radio broadcasts, transmitted on successive day."

  2. Yes indeed George – and transmitted over the Christmas holiday. Wish I'd been there to hear them...

  3. Oh dear yes. I hadn't heard...

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  5. Fascinating observations about the comma N - for which my thanks. My objection to the new coin is not grammatical but regarding the sentiment - do we have, and shoud we wish to have,"friendship" with all nations (would we have expressed such a sentimant in 1939?). Realpolitik may force us, with pegs on our noses, to have dealings with Saud Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea and so on - as we had to with Stalin's Russia during the war - but "friendship"?? And surely our government should never have supported Saudi Arabia's admission to the UN's Human Rights Committee, now utterly corrupted and worse than useless. However, nothing would induce me to arrogantly incovenience anyone working in a shop by refusing to accept the new coin as change - as some elitist snobs have said they intend to do.

  6. It's just mood music to lull those who thought (and doubtless still think) Brexit was all about hating foreigners.