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16 September 2022

In defence of the Oxford comma

Thérèse Coffey is engaging in the wanton destruction of a British institution.

By Benedict Spence

At moments of great national stress, people take comfort in familiar norms, patterns and traditions. 

It is for that reason that the Queue has captured the imagination of Britons everywhere, from those partaking to those observing. It combines the act of queuing, one of the pillars of civilisation that Brits have given the world, with monarchy – another pillar, now fallen across much of the globe, but still standing, steadfastly and defiantly, at the centre of the ruins of this decaying old empire.

But though these creaking pillars comfort and support us, it is that sense of decay that pervades. They will likely not stand forever – the day approaches when the monarchy ends, and people spontaneously stop queuing, throwing their civility to the wind.

Much is changing in Britain – some of it naturally, with the passage of time. But some of it insidiously, as a result of deliberate vandalism, in an effort to re-engineer the British people and state without them noticing. Dark forces are at work, making use of this moment in history, with all eyes elsewhere, to warp the world into their own image. Most disgracefully, some of it is coming from those elected to uphold, steer and protect this nation and its heritage.

I am of course talking about the Tory government’s evil attempts to disappear the Oxford comma. Unable to privatise nor deport grammar, the Tories plan to simply banish this cornerstone of the English language into the abyss. The Deputy Prime Minister and Health Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, a woman whose name my spell checker loathes, has taken it upon herself to lead the charge, cloaked in the garb of tackling jargon. Earlier this week, she sent a memo to staff at the Department for Health demanding that they stop using the Oxford comma.

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To the uninitiated, the Oxford comma, having done better at A-levels than its classmates (or perhaps having had a father who was friends with a few dons) appears before the words “and” or “or”, which follows the penultimate item in a list of at least three things in a sentence. An example of how it improves a sentence is currently doing the rounds on social media, attached to a photo of Coffey, Liz Truss and two piglets. “The photo shows two contented piglets, Truss and Coffey.” And: “The photo shows two contented piglets, Truss, and Coffey.”

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Like a queue or the monarchy, the Oxford comma brings balance, clarity and, where needed, order. It is not always needed, and can be too liberally jammed into text, but it exists as a fail-safe – a security guarantee for when the pattern of words on a page raises the prospect of misunderstanding.

It is perhaps understandable, however, that an experimental, obfuscating government, which is in a hurry to batter through policy as it sails headfirst into an economic hailstorm, might want to do away with such a symbol of measuredness. This is the time for action, not pauses. Unless it’s for a leadership contest. Or a party conference.

It is one of the cruellest jokes in the English language that wanton destruction follows whenever the “Conservative” Party wins elections. Perhaps the loss of the Oxford comma wouldn’t represent a loss to civilisation on a par with the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. But if government ministers cannot see the importance of the Oxford comma, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the education system they oversee.

Human diction at its best is delivered in measured segments, not a monotone, staccato chatter or cascade. It requires pauses for air, and pauses for emphasis. Of course, there are plenty of examples of how, like, devices, mannerisms and, uh, pauses can… break up the flow of speech in ways that are at best unnecessary and at worst unbearable. But the Oxford comma, more Alistair Cooke than Nicholas Witchell, carries with it a certain sense of panache and confidence. In suffocating times, it lets the reader reach the end of the sentence, and breathe.

[See also: “Anti-microbial resistance could kill us before the climate crisis does”]

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