Author Archives: Alan Paterson

The rules’ uncertainties

Deep in a proof-reading exercise I began to run into “Harris’ objections” and  “Travis’ contention” and the like, and set about adding esses: Harris’s objections, and so on.

Picked up on this, I said that as I understood it, failing to add an s was generally considered archaic, and rather frowned on these days. Googling for some kind of definitive authority to endorse what was in truth little more than a hunch, I came across an excellent article on the issue. Not only do serious authorities differ on the matter, The Chicago Manual of Style has actually changed its position: once in the Jesus’  camp, it now prefers Jesus’s. As I was accustomed to doing.

But I have now revised my own preference, in line with a proposal made by the author of the writing tips piece, one Maeve Maddox:

Having said which, it’s important not to forget that this remains just that – a preference. As so often with the wonder that is English, there *is* no definitive correct answer. As so often, yer pays yer money, and…

Oxford obsessive?

I’m starting to see Oxford commas in my sleep. In related territory, I recently came across:

Does that mean either sherry or balsamic vinegar or sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar? Impossible to tell.  A friend suggested a ‘sort of Oxford comma’:

1tsp of sherry, or balsamic vinegar

Well, it’s unambiguous. Wrong, admittedly, but you can’t have everything…

In other news:

‘He was accompanied by a Hungarian, a nice chap, and a painter’

How many companions did ‘he’ have? One, two, or three?

A what?

In a Guardian profile of Labour’s heir apparent, Keir Starmer, the writer’s ‘heart sinks’ when she asks for a sample of Labour’s big vision, only to receive: ‘An economy that works for everybody.’ But then, apparently, he ‘conjures up a glimpse of his vision of a Labour party that people might actually want to vote for.’ To whit:

‘an absolute skills agenda’? What in God’s name is that supposed to mean? And is this really ‘a glimpse of a vision people might want to vote for’?

Why can’t Decca Aitkenhead – generally one of The Guardian’s most perceptive and thoughtful journos – see that this is precisely the kind of constipated language that has helped drive a wedge between Labour and voters? That’s not a headline for an ambitious, bold project. That’s not even a headline. A political headline has to be something people might say to one another; something that touches a nerve, that has people thinking: “That’s right! That’s what I’ve always said!” Who has ever said, would ever say, “You know, what we need is an absolute skills agenda”?


That’s a headline. It may not be a great headline, but I only spent 10 or 11 seconds on it. I’m sure I could come up with better. But it is at least a headline.

Rule #1 of political messaging: if you can’t imagine a couple of punters swapping it over a pint, it’s valueless – at best.  Why doesn’t she understand this? Why doesn’t he? Maybe because he’s an ex-QC and she’s a lifelong Guardianista. And maybe that’s Labour’s problem in a nutshell.

Not that I’m a politico. But I am a communicator. And unless Labour high-fliers start grasping some of the basics, we might just as well read the last rites now and have done with it.

The Oxford comma: the story that rolls on, and on, and on, and…

Following recent undeniably somewhat anal discussion of the OC, a hot-off-the-press story illustrating how it’s not just a matter of aesthetics. No indeed – real cash money can be at stake.

As the piece summarizes:

Exemption F….lists which work activities do not count for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

Agricultural produce;

Meat and fish product; and

Perishable foods

If there was an Oxford comma after “packing for shipment” then neither “packing” not “distribution” would be covered by overtime pay. However, without it, “packing for shipment or distribution” count as one activity: packing. Distribution is not covered in the list of overtime exemptions. So they should get paid for it.

So there you have it: take care with your Ps & Qs…and your Oxford commas.

(For the full story:

Apples, pears, and bananas

Editing some copy written in American recently, I grumbled to myself about all the Oxford commas – the ones like those in the subject line, that appear entirely redundantly in sentences involving lists. As though ‘Apples, pears and bananas’ is somehow wrong. It’s all a hangover from a pompous and smug notion of the language that allows the supposedly educated to sneer at their supposed educational inferiors, and I loath it.

Then what should turn up in my inbox but this, from a friend:

Illustrating, amusingly, that while often redundant, and certainly not to be used invariably, the OC has its place.