The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – The Populist Solution and the Oxford Comma
It should be clear maybe even to the proverbial blind (or rather visually impaired) man on a trotting horse that what we choose, in our quaint way of using expressions to mean precisely what we want them to mean despite their traditional usage elsewhere, to call the “silly season”, has begun in Barbados. Most dictionaries choose to define the silly season as referring to a period when there is an absence of serious news available for publication in the newspapers; for example, the Cambridge English Dictionary posits the following – “The time of year, usually in the summer, when newspapers are full of stories that are not important because there is no important, especially political, news”
However, as Humpty Dumpty would have done in Alice in Wonderland, we use the term to describe that period when political news is at its most prevalent, the period of the electoral campaign, whether official or unofficial. That it might now be accurately described as an extraordinarily premature delivery, given that the Prime Minister might have as many as 12 months at his disposal to dissolve Parliament will scarcely bother those who are yearning for an electoral war for the coveted spoils of the reins of office.
So we have had the laughable scenario of some of the members and supporters of one party condemning the presence of a youngster, far braver than I could have ever claimed to be at his age, on a platform mounted by the opposition. He is censured not for what he is reported to have said or even how he said it, but simply for where he said it. The lad might consider ruefully that he would have suffered an equivalent panning from those who now defend his perspicuity had the metaphorical boot been on the other leg. That is realpolitik, I suppose.
As far as I am concerned, there will be time enough for musing on the engagement political, especially given the anticipated duration of this “silly season”.
I have chosen rather this week to comment on a development in another regional jurisdiction that speaks to the politics of crime fighting and of the lengths to which an administration will go to protect the lives of the citizenry and, simultaneously, to avoid being tarred with the partisan brush of being held hostage to the criminal element.
I refer, of course to the scenario in Trinidad & Tobago where, in order to wrestle a burgeoning murder rate to the ground, the governing Keith Rowley led administration is seriously contemplating a reinstitution of the execution of convicted murderers by hanging. The gravity of their concern might be evidenced by the fact that, as reported in last Sunday’s edition of the Barbados Advocate, Dr Rowley himself has openly requested the assistance of former Attorney General and quondam political foe, Mr. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, “to ensure the death penalty for convicted killers can be executed (sic) in T&T.
In light of the number of murders in that jurisdiction in recent years, – for 2017 alone, there have been, when last I checked on Monday, 106 murders in the 78 days of the year that had elapsed so far; an alarming rate of 1.37 murders per day-it comes as no surprise that a political administration should feel compelled to “try a t’ing”.
What most bears remarking about the current initiative, however, is not the conscription of a political foe to assist in the effort, but rather that all previous attempts since 1999 to follow the identical course of action in that jurisdiction have spectacularly failed. This apart, there are also the legal barriers in the jurisprudence of Trinidad & Tobago’s highest court, the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council, that would stymie the likelihood of the currently proposed measure passing constitutional muster.
Perhaps the Rowley administration is spoiling for a legal fight; which might explain the praying in aid of Mr Maharaj’s forensic legal skills and perhaps even his reputation as a previous administration’s chief legal adviser. After all, in that guise many years ago, he achieved the dubious distinction of “hanging nine with one blow”, reminding so much of the Brothers Grimm’s “Brave Little Tailor”. The Republic will, nevertheless, have to speed up its curial practices if it is going to overcome the Pratt & Morgan “elephant in the room” of having to effect the ultimate punishment within five years of the conviction. Indeed, because it withdrew some years from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, T& T has an even shorter period to do what it considers must be done once a conviction has been secured.
The Oxford Comma
One of the social media sites that I frequent carried a report this week as to how the absence of a comma led to a rather surprising legal decision. I thought it sufficiently amusing to serve as an end-piece to this week’s column. Frequent readers of this space may recall that on more occasions than one, I have referred to the importance of the placement of the comma in the phrase, “Hang him not let him go”. Position it after him and one obtains a markedly different result from when it is sited after the “not”. One might say it would be the difference between life and death. There are others too. For example, the unvarnished and unpunctuated, “ A woman without her man is nothing” might offer some controversial insights whether the comma is placed after “woman” or, indeed, after “man”.
The piece on LinkedIn, interestingly enough, refers to the use of a comma many of us would have been taught as infants to avoid as being superfluous. This is the infamous Oxford comma that, contrary to traditional lore, is employed before “and” and before “or”.
The anecdote, written by one Zamira Rahim. Is self-explanatory.
According to his report, a group of dairy drivers in the dispute argued that they deserved overtime pay and the appeals court agreed with them. Why?
Because the guidelines setting out the types of work that don’t require overtime pay lacked clarity. The case turned on one particular statutory extract:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
The lack of an Oxford comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution of” meant that it was unclear whether the guidelines meant distribution and packing for shipment were separate things, or whether the exemption applied to jobs involving either packing for shipment or packing for distribution.
According to the court, the dairy drivers in question only distributed but didn’t pack perishable food, so weren’t necessarily covered by the clause. The judge added that where such rules are unclear, labor laws are structured to benefit employees, so the dairy drivers won.
“For want of a comma, we have this case,” the judge wrote.