What is an Oxford comma? Why does Therese Coffey want to ban civil servants using Oxford commas

UK civil servants should avoid using Oxford commas in their work, the incoming Deputy Prime Minister Therese Coffey has said. But what is an Oxford comma, what are some examples, and why is Liz Truss’s deputy so angry about the piece of punctuation?

Therese Coffey, the new Health Secretary who is also serving as Liz Truss’s Deputy Prime Minister, has been criticised for issuing guidance to staff which – among other things – has asked workers not to use ‘Oxford commas’.

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It was first reported in the Financial Times which revealed the document in question is titled ‘New secretary of state ways of working preferences’.

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According to PA, Government sources say it is not unusual for new ministerial teams to set out ways of working for civil servants when new ministers are appointed.

And perhaps the instructions – which also urge staff to ‘be precise’ and ‘be positive – if we have done something good, let us say so and avoid double negatives’ – come as no surprise.

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Ms Coffey, who was Work and Pensions Secretary under Boris Johnson, has discussed her dislike of the Oxford comma on Twitter in the past, saying in 2015 it was one of her “pet hates”.

So what do we know about Oxford commas?

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What is an Oxford comma? Why does Therese Coffey want to ban civil servants using Oxford commas? Images: Creative Commons & Press Association

What is an Oxford comma

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Also known as a serial comma, series comma or Harvard comma, the much-maligned Oxford comma appears after the penultimate term in a series of three or more items.

The usage of Oxford is hotly contested in English-speaking countries. In the UK, British English allows for both the usage of Oxford commas or lists without.

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In America, the Oxford comma is more common and some style guides even mandate its such. For instance, the APA style or the Chicago Manual of Style.

Deputy Prime Minister and Health Secretary Therese Coffey leaving no 10 Downing Street, London.
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However, the style guide of the New York Times – one of the largest English-language news publishers in the world – advises against its use.

Lynne Truss (not believed to be relation of PM Liz Truss), the author of the popular guide ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’, said: "There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

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The Oxford Companion to the English Language is informative or whether on not to add serial commas to your writing: "Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item.

"This practice is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press."

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The important consideration is whether or not using an Oxford comma will remove ambiguity from a list, or add ambiguity. Language should make communication easier.

Examples of Oxford commas

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Let’s consider some examples of Oxford commas in use, courtesy of Thesaurus.com.

- "Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog” demonstrates the importance of commas generally: "Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family and her dog”

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- "We went caroling with our dogs, grandma and grandpa” is rather ambiguous, and could use an Oxford comma: "We went caroling with our dogs, grandma, and grandpa.”

- “...Merle Haggard's two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall," is an oft-quoted example.

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Oxford commas and Vampire Weekend

The phrase Oxford Comma is also associated with American indie band Vampire Weekend and their popular hit, Oxford Comma, which was released in 2008.

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Band member Ezra Koenig, when asked about the song, said it “is more about not giving a f**k than about Oxford commas."

You can listen to the full, expletive-laden track here.

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Additional reporting by PA