Flushing out the Oxford comma to clear the NHS backlog

In early September this year, the new UK Prime Mister, Liz Truss (remember her?) appointed Conservative MP Thérèse Coffey as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Soon after, the press reported that Thérèse Coffey had sent staff in her new departmental fiefdom a strict manual on writing.

I haven’t seen the writing manual itself. And I haven’t seen the original press report, behind a paywall at the Financial Times. But later press reports tell a consistent story. They say that the manual was called new secretary of state ways of working preferences and that it instructed staff:

  • to use plain English—I presume both in writing for Thérèse Coffey and in writing for the public, though the reports don’t say this.
  • to make all papers for Ms Coffey concise.
  • not to use the ‘Oxford comma’.

The instructions to use plain English and to make papers concise are sensible.

What attracted the attention of the press, and much derision, was the apparent ban on the Oxford comma.

What is the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma is a comma used (in English) before the final conjunction in a list of three or more items. This term arose because one institution that adopted the convention of including this comma was Oxford University Press. (Some people use the term serial comma instead.)

Example 1 contains an Oxford comma. Example 1a is the same sentence without the Oxford comma.
(1) The last 4 Prime Minsters were David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss.
(1a) The last 4 Prime Minsters were David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

There are 3 approaches to the Oxford comma:

  • never use it. Thérèse Coffey advocates this approach. In July 2011 she tweeted that ‘I cannot bear it and constantly remove it’. Then in April 2015, she tweeted that the Oxford comma is ‘one of my pet hates’.
  • always use it.
  • in general, do not use it, but include the Oxford comma if it helps avoid ambiguity.

I discuss below whether banning the Oxford comma:

  • should be a priority for the Health Secretary.
  • is a good idea in all cases.

Banning the Oxford comma: a useful priority?

As many people have pointed out, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is in crisis. However strongly Thérèse Coffey feels about the Oxford comma, she really has more important things to do than waste time and energy trying to stamp a minor aspect of writing style which is only a matter of personal preference anyway.

To be fair to Thérèse Coffey, the press reports suggest that the writing manual was compiled by someone in her staff with the aim of telling her new staff how best to work with her. That seems a perfect reasonable—and useful—thing to do.

Although Thérèse Coffey has said herself on Twitter that she hates the Oxford Comma, there is no evidence that she herself has devoted any attention to this trivial topic since taking office. Nor have I seen any evidence that she made some dictatorial attempt to impose this insignificant personal preference. So, I think the harsh tone of the press reports may not be justified.

Banning the Oxford comma: a good idea in all cases?

Sometimes, including the Oxford comma can be one way to remove ambiguity. For instance, consider example 2:

(2) Thérèse Coffey owes much to her parents, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Example (2) could appear to say that Thérèse Coffey’s parents are Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.  Example 2a removes that ambiguity by inserting the Oxford comma before and:

(2a) Thérèse Coffey owes much to her parents, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss.

Example 2a makes it clear that Thérèse Coffey owes much to her parents and also to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. (Of course, inserting the Oxford comma isn’t the only way to remove the ambiguity, and may not be the best way.)

My view on the Oxford comma

In general, I don’t use the Oxford comma, but I do include it if I become aware that leaving it out could lead to ambiguity. Arguably, it would be better for me to switch to using it in all cases. That would:

  • produce a more consistent-looking style;
  • cut time and effort spent looking out consciously for possible ambiguities when I am drafting; and
  • reduce the risk of me missing ambiguities in my writing.

Nevertheless, I am probably too set in my ways now to switch over to using the Oxford comma in all cases. So, I will just carry on using it only when I spot a possible ambiguity.

Postscript 1
People who lay down rigid writing rules often breach those rules themselves. By an irony that seems inevitable, the press quickly found an Oxford comma in the following sentence in a document bearing Thérèse Coffey’s name.

‘Our plan will sit alongside the NHS Long Term Plan, the forthcoming workforce plan, and our plans to reform adult social care.’

This appears in the Ministerial Forward (signed by Thérèse Coffey) to the Policy Paper Our Plan for Patients, published by her department on 22 September 2022.

Postscript 2
The magazine The Spectator ran a competition to write a poem about the Oxford Comma and Thérèse Coffey’s antipathy to it. The winning poems are at https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/spectator-competition-winners-poems-about-the-oxford-comma

2 comments

  1. Using the Oxford comma only when it resolves ambiguity in a sentence, as you suggest, prioritizes clarity over consistency. That is a kindness to readers.

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