In Depth

Why everyone’s talking about the Oxford comma

Commemorative Brexit coin sparks grammar-based row

Author Philip Pullman has declared war on a new commemorative 50p coin marking the UK’s departure from the EU - but for grammatical rather than political reasons.  

Although Pullman is a vocal Remainer, his main criticism of the Royal Mint’s latest creation, which enters circulation on 31 October, relates to a missing Oxford comma in the coin’s text. 

The coin is inscribed with the message: “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” But while some may be impressed by that sentiment, the bestselling novelist has tweeted that the coin should be boycotted “by all literate people”. 

What is an Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma is included before the final “and” or “or” in lists of three or more items, but is optional and is often a topic of fierce debate among grammar enthusiasts.

Also known as a serial comma, the punctuation mark derives its common name from its traditional usage at Oxford University Press (OUP).

All the same, some detractors argue that the Oxford comma is an Americanism, with no place in British English. Others say it is an anachronism and is not required in the majority of cases.

However, supporters argue that there are sentences where the inclusion of an Oxford comma is required to ensure clarity. The Sun cites the following example: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.” 

In this instance, the Oxford comma ”Lady Gaga” eliminates the risk that ”parents” may be interpreted as referring to the singer and Humpty Dumpty.

BuzzFeed offers a string of other examples, including: “We invited the strippers, J.F.K, and Stalin.” 

“Without the Oxford comma, you’re basically forcing world leaders into exotic dancing,” argues the news and entertainment site.

How have people reacted to the coin row? 

The commemorative coin was unveiled this week by Chancellor Sajid Javid. As Sky News notes, “while Mr Javid’s job title means he needs to be more of a numbers man than a wordsmith, that hasn’t stopped some from sticking the knife in” over what they view as the vital missing Oxford comma.

The editor of The Times Literary Supplement, Stig Abel, shares Pullman’s views on the Brexit coin, tweeting that “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”.

But word guru Susie Dent, from Countdown’s Dictionary Corner, has pointed out that Oxford commas are optional.

The Times reports on the row under the headline “Pullman leads pedants’ revolt”, and notes that “in true Brexit style”, the issue is “dividing friends”.

Gyles Brandreth, author of grammar guidebook Have You Eaten Grandma?, told the newspaper that he is by no means opposed to the extra comma but objects to the idea that it is mandatory, adding: “Many modern scholars regard it as out of date and fuddy-duddy.”

Brandreth also suspects that its absence on the coin is intentional. “What the coin celebrates is not three separate elements but two,” he said. “We wish ‘peace’ to all nations, and we wish ‘prosperity and friendship’ to all nations. Be our friend and you will prosper!”

Whatever the intended meaning of the motto, vocal Brexiteer Julia Hartley-Brewer is bemused by the furore. Writing in The Telegraph, she says: “Who would have guessed, as we battled for Brexit through the Commons and the courts for all those long years, that we’d had a secret weapon all along? 

“Little did we know that the humble Brexit coin would turn out to be Remoaner kryptonite, causing them to instantly lose both their strength and their minds.”

But Oxford comma proponents might retaliate that overlooking the grammatical issue can have costly real-world consequences.

In 2017, a group of dairy drivers won a legal dispute about overtime pay after the judge ruled that employee guidelines were too ambiguous because of a missing Oxford comma, as CNN reported at the time.

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