Oxford comma: Therese Coffey may have tried to ban it but language is a democracy not a dictatorship – Susie Dent

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t,” wrote Lynne Truss in her wittily prescriptive Eats, Shoots and Leaves, adding “and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

The new UK Health Secretary Therese Coffey advised her staff to avoid jargon and stop using Oxford commas (Picture: PA)
The new UK Health Secretary Therese Coffey advised her staff to avoid jargon and stop using Oxford commas (Picture: PA)

Any defender of one of the most controversial punctuation marks in history would best avoid the bar at the House of Commons lest they meet Thérèse Coffey, for the new Health Secretary has advised her staff to not only avoid jargon when communicating, but to desist from any use of the Oxford comma.

Her memo has duly given fresh momentum to a debate that began in the 19th century and which has abated little since, famously inspiring possibly the only punctuation jam in history from the indie rock band Vampire Weekend, which asks “Who gives a f*** about an Oxford comma?”

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For all that Coffey’s team has tried to mollify critics by describing the memo as showing “a bit of over-eagerness”, this is not a new beef on her part. She has form on social media for grumbling over this particular bit of punctuation. But how did an apparently innocuous piece of linguistic scaffolding make it onto anyone’s list of pet hates at all?

The Oxford comma, also known as the “serial comma” as though it belongs in an offenders’ institution, has been the preferred house style of Oxford Dictionaries for over a century.

Credit for it however seems to belong to a contemporary of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, the man also responsible for the phrase “the survival of the fittest”. Put simply, it is the comma that comes before “and” in a series of three or more items in a list.

So “we ate steak, green beans, and chips” includes an Oxford comma, which in this case changes little and is purely a matter of taste. In other cases, though, the comma avoids costly ambiguity. Take “the curtains come in black and white, red and yellow and polka dot”. Does the polka dot come on its own or with the red and yellow?

Some consider this serial comma helpful and elegant in any list, regardless of whether it makes any difference. On the other side are those who consider it to be the fusspot member of the punctuation family, whose clutter and busy-ness are unwelcome in any text.

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Many of us have been told that a preposition should never bring up the rear of any sentence, and that a comma before the word “and” is simply wrong. We are taught such “rules” irrespective of the fact they were often arbitrarily decided by 18th-century purists, who thought Latin conventions the only ones worth following.

In the middle of this bumpy road are those like the Guardian Style Guide, who take a more nuanced approach and advise its use when it helps to avoid confusion. And what confusion it can be: “We went to the park with our dogs, Grandma and Grandpa” is right up there with one TV channel’s summary of the film A Few Best Men: “A would-be groom sees his wedding day turn into a fiasco when his terminally pubescent best friends, a drug dealer and a male sheep enter the picture.”

Not that opponents are without their own laughs at the Oxford comma’s expense. “Sam, a semi-colon, and an Oxford comma walk into a bar. They both have a great time.”

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Never let it be said that punctuation is without jeopardy. Legal cases have depended on it. In 2018, three lorry drivers in Portland, Maine, rested their entire case regarding lost overtime pay on the omission in state legislature of an Oxford comma.

The state’s law sets out that overtime is not payable to workers involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution”. The drivers successfully argued that as there was no comma after “shipment” the implication was that “distribution” here still related to the packing, and therefore didn’t exclude them from overtime pay. They settled for compensation of $5 million.

In 2020, the inscription on the Brexit commemorative coin – “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” – caused a foofaraw on account of its missing Oxford comma, prompting Philip Pullman (split infinitive sticklers look away now) to mischievously declare that the coin should be “boycotted by all literate people”. Surely, others agreed, the stylish swish of an Oxford comma would have allowed for a gentle breath before “prosperity”?

Those who predict the imminent demise of English standards might take heart from the fact that many of us still fight the good fight over such matters, and that brouhahas like this are nothing new.

Recent history has itself been punctuated by outcries over the overuse of exclamation marks (“Five?” once remarked Terry Pratchett, “A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head”). Ben Jonson, arguably England’s greatest punctuator who even inserted a colon (which he liked to call a “double prick”) between his first and last name, adored a semi-colon, but Kurt Vonnegut declaimed them as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college”.

To Thérèse Coffey, an Oxford comma clearly sticks out like a misplaced aubergine emoji or any mention of someone “reaching out” or “dialling in”. But linguistic dictatorship never works and, like our government, English is a democracy in which the people decide.

We may not like its moves sometimes, but we leave it to get on with the job. A golden age of language, when rules were rules and all communication was elegant and articulate, is a figment of pedantic fancy.

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Here too, it’s a question of the survival of the fittest. If a government minister, a low-hanging fruit, and an Oxford comma were to walk into a bar, there might be fireworks, but I think we know which one would come out smiling.

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in ‘Dictionary Corner’ on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple.

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