[lit-ideas] Re: When you were in Oxford, did you dine in college?

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 10 Jan 2012 07:32:28 -0500 (EST)


"When you are in Oxford, do you dine in college?" ---  Grammar and Style 
(reviewed by J. Winder, for the Independent).
"[Dummett]", Winder writes, "does himself few favours by proposing, as  a 
model of a compound question, the sentence: 'When you are in Oxford, do you  
dine in college?' Good manners can, in the wrong company, appear merely 
snooty  and disdainful. Dummett counters this line of criticism in his 
conclusion. The  language has not, he insists, irrevocably renounced its rules. 
the contrary,  many people, reading prose written in conformity to them, find 
it exceptionally  clear or pleasing, without being able to analyse why it 
makes this impression on  them.' Probably he is right that not many people 
will be able to analyse exactly  what is so clear and pleasing about this 
stiff, repetitive sentence. But the  truly unsatisfying thing about this 
argument is: that's it. The sentence stands  alone, begging about a thousand 
ns and casting doubt on the otherwise  sensible advice with which [Dummett] 
is full."
Three passages from the Guardian obituary, by Moore,  online:

"Dummett's many non-philosophical publications included books on  
immigration, Catholicism, tarot cards, and voting procedures (he devised the  
Borda system of voting), as well as Grammar and Style for Examination  
Candidates and Others (1993), the culmination of his relentless fight against  
standards of literacy."

"That fight occasionally found amusing expression in his other work.  His 
last book on Frege included a delicious footnote in which, having  
forestalled a possible misunderstanding of one of the sentences in the main  
text, he 
went on to lament the fact that the only reason for the note was that  few 
writers or publishers nowadays 
[----->] "evince a grasp of the distinction between a gerund and a  
He continued, with characteristic tetchiness: "People frequently remark  
that they see no point in observing grammatical rules, so long as they convey  
their meaning. This is like saying that there is nothing wrong with using a 
 razor blade to cut string, so long as the string is cut. By violating the 
rules,  they make it difficult for others to express their meaning without  

"Some readers of Dummett would say that it was ironic that he was so  
preoccupied with style, since his own prose left much to be desired. It is true 
that his sentences often displayed a rather unwieldy complexity. But they 
also  displayed an acute sensitivity to the structure of the thoughts that 
they were  intended to convey; and that fact, combined with the precision with 
which  Dummett chose his words, meant that there was a real clarity about 
his writing,  however lacking it might have been in facility. The writing was 
in some respects  like the man – marked by honesty and integrity, though it 
could at times be  difficult."
Re: Moore's 
"it was ironic that..." cfr.:
Peacoke's memoir of Dummett in the NYT, online:
"The gap between Michael’s theory and his practical life was a reliable  
source of pleasure to his friends. He published original contributions to the  
theory of voting; yet he designed a system for a Wardenship election in 
Oxford  that permitted — and produced — massive tactical voting. He published 
a book on  writing style in philosophy, an enterprise described by one 
philosopher as  comparable to Attila the Hun producing a book on etiquette."
Finally, Stanley's anecdote therein, too. He was
"sitting in the New College Senior Common Room after lunch discussing the  
meaning of the word “if” with another philosopher. Dummett was huddled over 
a  newspaper elsewhere in the room. I remarked how odd it was to think that 
the  word “if” could have radically different meanings on different 
occasions of use,  for example one meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald didn’t 
kill Kennedy,  someone else did,” and another meaning in a sentence like “If 
Oswald hadn’t of  killed Kennedy, someone else would have.” From a cloud 
of tobacco smoke halfway  across the room, Dummett piped up, “I wonder if you 
really think that.”"
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