“Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” became the surprise earworm lyric of the late noughties when the Ivy League-educated band Vampire Weekend asked the question on their debut album. Fourteen years later, I can tell you that the definitive answer is: Thérèse Coffey.
The new health secretary and deputy prime minister has begun her tenure by issuing language-use directives in an email to departmental civil servants. Language should “be positive”, “precise”, and “avoid jargon”. But most importantly: there should not be, under any circumstances, Oxford commas.
You might think: given the NHS falling apart, aren’t there rather more important things Coffey should be addressing? What about the 6.8 million people waiting for routine treatment? Or the 132,000 unfilled NHS posts? Or the patients dying in ward corridors? Look, those things can wait because Coffey hates the comma.
It is, after all, perhaps the most contentious piece of grammar there is. Its defenders would die for it; its detractors consider it an abomination. Gertrude Stein apparently hated it. But Philip Pullman was one of many displeased with its non-inclusion on a Brexit memorial 50p. Memes abound: a mock-up of a Nike advert with the company’s tick logo inverted to resemble a comma, and the famous slogan “Just Do It” altered to “Just Use It”. Its usage was even the deciding factor in a three-year, multimillion dollar US lawsuit. In the judge’s 29-page opinion, it was pointed out that 43 states use it.
So, what is this contentious comma exactly? The simplest explanation is that it is a comma placed before the final item in a list. For example: Coffey’s email was patronising, unnecessary, and a distraction. But even the specifics of the definition are hotly disputed.
My main reason for enthusiastically supporting the Oxford comma is that it is important to the cadence and rhythm of a sentence. I feel this in my bones. But another argument is that its omission can change the meaning of a sentence, or introduce ambiguity.
This sentence, for example: “At the government’s circus-themed party, I struck up a conversation with the clowns, Suella Braverman and Nadine Dorries,” which does not have an Oxford comma, has a different meaning to: “At the government’s circus-themed party, I struck up a conversation with the clowns, Suella Braverman, and Nadine Dorries.”
One of the most famous rumours of an Oxford-comma fail relates to The Times supposedly publishing a description of a travel programme starring Peter Ustinov which included the sentence: “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Another is the (probably apocryphal) book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” That would be a truly wild coupling.
Despite its most common moniker, the Oxford comma is actually more widespread in American English. Some in the US call it the “Harvard comma”, which is rather sweet. The New Yorker, which readers will know takes its style choices extremely seriously, is a user of the “serial comma”. Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, describes those who do not use the Oxford comma as “godless savages”. But in British English, many style guides eschew it. The Guardian’s style guide rather fudges the issue, in my opinion.
In Coffey’s defence, she is correct that clear and precise language is important when it comes to optimal outcomes of communication. Coffey was referring to internal Department of Health and Social Care comms, but as an NHS patient, I have frequently despaired at grammatical mistakes in correspondence. There’s something rather dispiriting about receiving medical letters, so often sensitive in nature, riddled with errors. And I rather respect the long history of her opposition, tweeting for more than 1o years about how she “abhors” the comma.
And we all have our grammar bugbears (some people may disagree with my choice to start that sentence with “and”). I physically recoil when “thank you” is written as a single word. But, of course, it’s also important to allow language to evolve and diversify, and different registers suit different mediums. I often write in all lower-case for social media posts, but I wouldn’t dream of doing so elsewhere.
But really, the main point remains that Coffey has more important things to focus on when staffing in the health service is in its worst ever state. She’s not the only one fiddling while Rome burns. Gimmicks among her colleagues are proliferating as the Tories’ barely disguised hostility towards the civil service grows. Jacob Rees-Mogg, now in charge of the energy brief at a time of global industry crisis, notoriously left notes saying “sorry you were out when I visited” on the vacant desks of civil servants – pretty rich for a man who acts as though his own workplace is a DFS showroom. Will our elected politicians just please do their jobs? Is that really so much to ask? Because, for now at least, absolutely no one gives a fuck about an Oxford comma.