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Sunday, 26 February 2006



Nothing definate, but my understanding (no idea where from) was that it meant getting a first on a technicality, or rather being awarded a first despite having technically failed some element.


I've wondered along those lines as the name seems to suggest something like that. Perhaps if you miss a paper through illness. But there's no record of the term except in the context of Amis and surely a First that's not a First shouldn't be a First.


Maybe I should start claiming a "formal 2:1" on the grounds that I'd have got a 2:1 if I'd bothered to do any work/revision.

Given the absence of any reference to "formal first"s other than Martin Amis, I'm inclined to suspect it was an, ahem, "error" on his part.


I hope I can clear this up for you, I'd love it...

A formal First is a degree that has been offered when the candidate has missed that magic 70 by a tiny margin. If two moderators agree on the classification, and if the candidate's general work in other areas is good enough to merit it, they may, at their discretion, offer a First Class degree. The formal system can also be used if a candidate's work has suffered in part due to illness or life circumstances, if it is generally agreed that s/he has produced work of a quality consistent enough throughout his time at the institution.

But the margin is tiny: you don't hear of the formal First very often because such awards are rare and discretionary.

I do hope this helps.


Thats funny-I was just reading today's Guardian article on Amis and immediately googled "Formal First" upon seeing the phrase because I'd NEVER heard it at Oxford- found, yes, many links to stories on Amis, and then this more helpful link to your blog.
Such fun to see that he clearly dropped it in an early interview, and that since then every journalist covering him has simply parroted the phrase unquestioningly: the article I am reading now goes so far as to make a "Formal First" sound like an especially outstanding achievement. VERY funny. Thank you for the useful inquiry. Good blog.



thanks for your kind words about the blog.

Chris's explanation is definitely plausible, but I'd feel a lot happier if we could find someone else other Martin Amis who was awarded one.

It's discussed in Leader's Kingsley Amis Biography as a first with special distinction kind of thing.

Paul Coupar

Just stumbled across this while researching Amis. PMC is right. The degree Amis took was a first with distinction. The candidate is called for a viva with the examiners, but instead of a grilling they are given a round of applause and told how much the examiners enjoyed his/her papers. I've only ever heard it called a "formal first" by Amis. Usually it is called a "congratulatory first" (or at Cambridge a starred first). Very rare, other well-known recipients include the ethicist Bernard Williams and TV's Sister Wendy. Hope that helps.

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