Gerry’s News Digest 186: Sicilian driving culture, luck and punctuation (9th May, 2016)

Hi, this is Gerry, with a bit of a cold and my News Digest for Monday 9th May 2016. This edition of my News Digest is coming out a few days later than usual but that’s because of the Ascension Day holiday in Switzerland – or, rather, the long weekend that people like to take after the public holiday on Thursday. I’m just back from a holiday in Sicily, my first visit to that historic and beautiful island. I’m going to talk about the holiday more in my Diary in two weeks but today I’d like to take up one aspect of Sicilian or perhaps Italian culture that got me thinking while I was there: that’s their driving culture. I think I’m a lucky person to be able go on holiday to somewhere like Sicily, but am I lucky or is it just because I’ve worked hard and earned my holiday? The role of luck in our lives is my second topic today. And finally, what do you think about punctuation? Is it important to know all the rules about commas?

But before I start on today’s topics, a word of thanks to Franz who left a comment on the website after the last show. Franz said that he enjoyed listening to my podcasts. He found them interesting but he’d like less politics and less about war. I realise, of course, that different people have different interests, and I try to keep a balance [1] in my choice of topics. I like stories that I think will be of interest in Switzerland – about things that we have in common [2] perhaps, or where there’s a difference in attitude or in the way things are done in Switzerland compared with the UK. And I think that’s where the war stories come in. British history, like that of many other countries, has been profoundly influenced by war and the memory of it. Switzerland is unusually fortunate in having kept out of wars for so long, but I think if you want to understand the people of other countries you have to be aware of their history. On my last show for example, I talked about the referendum in New Zealand about a new flag. After the show I spoke to an Australian about why Australia still has the British Union Jack as part of their flag, like New Zealand. Why don’t they change? Her answer was that they won’t change until the Second World War and the Vietnam War veterans have all gone. Her father fought in Vietnam. Soldiers fight for their country as symbolised by its flag. If you change the flag, it’s as if you want to forget the service and the sacrifice of these men and women. I hadn’t thought about that aspect of the flag before.


A friend of mine with a law degree [3] once told me that different cultures understand the concept of law in different ways. For example, Northern European cultures perceive [4] the law as being a bit like the floor of a room. It provides a sort of foundation for what we do. Everything is based on it. Southern Europeans, by contrast, view the law more like the ceiling of the room. The important thing is to work out what you can do without breaking through that legal ceiling. Like all metaphors it’s a simplification, but I couldn’t help thinking about it when I was driving my rental car around Sicily. I came to the conclusion that road signs governing speed limits [5], parking restrictions, overtaking [6], stopping, giving way [7] and so on seem to have a different function there. In Sicily, and other parts of Italy as well for that matter, these signs seem to have more of an advisory nature [8] rather than legal regulation. At any rate [9], drivers there seem to make their own decisions rather than sticking strictly to the official rules [10].

I met a number of other tourists in Sicily from countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Hungary, and they all thought that the Sicilians were very bad drivers. Since I got back I looked at the statistics, and it has to be said that there are something like [11] twice as many people killed in traffic accidents in Italy than in the UK, with Switzerland and the Netherlands close to the UK figure. But it’s Hungary and other central European countries that have the worst statistics in Europe. My Northern European friends described Sicilian drivers as aggressive. It’s true that they tend to drive fast when they can and very close to other cars, and they like to use their horns. These are all behaviours that Northern Europeans associate with aggression, but I can’t say that I found Sicilian drivers personally aggressive. I have the feeling that road rage [12] is more of a Northern European thing than Southern. Sicilians shout at each other quite a lot but they shout when they’re chatting. Shouting doesn’t mean aggression in that part of the world.

So this is how I interpret certain aspects of Sicilian driving. White lines on the road show you where the middle of the road is: where it’s best to drive. Drive in the middle of the road and then move to the side if another car comes. You can park where you like but you should try to leave enough room for the bus to get past. In the narrow streets of Palermo, when you want to join a road it’s often difficult to see. So, it’s polite to use your horn to let people know that you’re coming. In the town, it’s OK to push into the traffic, and if somebody has pushed enough it’s OK to let them go in front of you. If you don’t push, you just block the traffic behind you. And that’s not polite.

My conclusion? Sicilians are clever, flexible and pragmatic when they drive. But a lot of them treat driving like a sport – that’s why they get so close to you when they’re overtaking; their model is motor racing. That’s probably why they have so many accidents. And they drive very extravagantly: they don’t worry about fuel consumption [13] or the wear and tear [14] on their brakes and tyres.


In the book section of a newspaper recently, I read a review of a couple of books about our ideas of “meritocracy”. This is the idea that we have a society today where everybody gets what they deserve, so money and power go to people who have earned it rather than to those have been born to it, or to those who have stolen it, etc. The books under review considered how true this might be and looked at the element of luck in people’s success or lack of it. The reviewer quoted Mr Cameron, our Prime Minister, who gave an interview following the news that his father was mentioned in the Panama Papers – the leaked documents [15] from the law firm in Panama that specialises in helping people keep their money in tax havens [16] such as the British Virgin Islands. Mr Cameron said that he felt lucky that his parents were wealthy and that he had a good upbringing [17]. He was also lucky to be born in the UK. If he’d been born in Malawi or Bangladesh his chances of material success would’ve been much, much lower. He also said that he was lucky to earn a good salary as Prime Minister, but that luck is a little different. He had to work for it, as well, but you still need to have some luck. You have to be the right person in the right place at the right time. So when people say that they deserve their wealth because they earned it, they shouldn’t forget that good fortune [18] also played a role.


I just read a new book about punctuation [19]. How boring, you might think! In school the lessons you had about punctuation – rules about where to put commas, stops [20], colons [21], semi-colons [22] and so on were probably amongst the worst you had to endure. In fact, this wasn’t a book about punctuation rules; it was more about why we have punctuation; where it came from and how it’s changed over time. When Europeans started writing things down, notably religious texts in Latin, all the words were just joined up together. No spaces, no capital letters [23], no punctuation marks. Priests had to read the holy texts in church, and they started to put little marks in the text to show them where the pauses, the breaks were. And slowly a system developed. A full stop (or period [24]) showed a long pause; a comma was used for the shortest pause. So that was the first function of punctuation, but then another trend developed. When we write, we usually write in sentences and we follow patterns and rules that we call grammar. People began to see punctuation as part of grammar. Thus, a full stop followed by a space and a capital letter separates one sentence from another, and the other punctuation marks are used to separate other grammatical units. The grammatical approach to punctuation is what we find in German. There’s not much flexibility in German when it comes to deciding where to put commas, for example. English, and French, allow the writer more freedom. So punctuation has two functions – to show pauses, and to show the underlying grammar. But that’s not all. Punctuation can have two more functions. It can be semantic, helping to make meaning clear. For example, if I say: “Owen, my son who lives in China, and my son who lives in Zurich” I’m talking about two people and not three. When I speak I use my voice to make it clear, but when I write I can use commas or brackets or dashes [25]. Finally, we can use punctuation to produce an effect. Sometimes this is a matter of fashion. In the 19th century, English writers loved punctuation. They liked to put in as much as they could. Today that’s no longer fashionable, because we prefer to see a cleaner looking page [26]. Today we also use new forms of punctuation like smileys [27] to let people know we’re making a joke, etc. So you see English punctuation doesn’t work on the basis of a set of strict rules; it’s a matter of making what you write clear, easy to read, [28] and appropriate to your readers.


And that’s it for this time. Don’t forget the vocabulary trainer on the PodClub app. And remember if you’ve got anything to say about any of my topics, write to me via the website: Or use Twitter: my Twitter address is @Gerrypod. I’ll be back in a month. Thanks for listening, and take care!

[1] balance: equilibrium, a good relationship between a number of things (not too much of one thing)
[2] to have in common: to share, to have the same (attitudes, qualities, etc. as the other people)
[3] a law degree: a university qualification (bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, etc.) in the legal system of a country or countries (NB The word rhymes with the words “four” or “more!)
[4] to perceive: to see, to understand, to visualise
[5] speed limit: how fast you are allowed to drive on a road
[6] to overtake: to go past another car on the road (NB “to take over” has a different meaning!)
[7] to give way: to yield, to allow other vehicles to go in front of you
[8] have an advisory nature: be something that gives you good ideas about what to do (without ordering you to do it)
[9] at any rate: an expression used in spoken English to change a statement and tell somebody that one part of what was said is true
[10] to stick to (the rules): to obey, to follow (the rules)
[11] something like: approximately, about
[12] road rage: the irrational anger that some drivers feel at certain times towards other people on the road 
[13] fuel consumption: how much petrol (American: gas) or diesel that you use
[14] wear and tear: the natural/normal damage that you do to something when you use it
[15] leaked (documents): secret or confidential (documents) that have been passed to the press and made public (such as the Panama Papers or the Snowden Files)
[16] tax haven: a country where you can leave money in order to avoid paying tax
[17] upbringing: the way that parents look after their children and teach them to behave
[18] (good) fortune: (good) luck
[19] Making a Point, by David Crystal, 2015
[20] stop: There is one of these at the end of this sentence.
[21] colon: There is one of these at the end of this sentence:
[22] semicolon: There is one of these at the end of this sentence;
[23] capital letter: big letters, e.g. THESE ONES
[24] full stop, period: We have these at the end of a sentence, such as this one. The first word is the usual British name for this punctuation mark, and the second is the American word.
[25] commas, brackets, dashes: Here are examples of these three punctuation marks: “Owen, my son, lives in China” “Owen (my son) lives in China” “Owen – my son – lives in China”
[26] NB When we write addresses at the top of a letter, for example, we no longer put commas at the end of each line.
[27] smileys: :-) or ;-) etc.
[28] NB This final comma before the “and” is called the serial comma or Oxford comma. There’s a lot of argument about its use. I was taught that it’s wrong to put a comma there, but Oxford University Press uses it (hence its name) and a lot of American publishers also. I used it here to remind me to make a little pause before the last item in the list.


Peter Hallwyl 15-05-2016 00:08
Hello Gerry
I agree with you, different people have different interests. The political and especialy the historic topics are for me often the most interesting parts of your podcasts. They are for me sometimes more interesting as some tv-corresponden ts. Never I heard such a good and short summary of Irish history as in your last podcast. On the other hand I am less interested about sport contributions. But I now, sport is a important part of british culture and other people like it more than I do.
Thanks and best regards
Käthi 14-05-2016 18:11
Hi Gerry,
Thank you for the podcast! The topic about the punctuation is very interesting. I didn't know that in the past the religious texts in Latin, all the words were just joinded up together.
I searched on the internet: It was the Italian typographer and printer, Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), who used for the first time commas and also the full stop.
Professor Dr. Hartmut Günther (Universitiy of Köln) analysed texts from the Luther bible from 1522 to 1961. He found out that commas appeared only in the 1736 edition and they substituted the "Virgil" (little obliques or little marks as you said in your podcast).
But I didn't find out who invented finally the numerous - too many!!! - comma rules in German. Fortunately, some of them were eliminated with the spelling reform in 2006.
Kind regards,