SOME say they are useful, aesthetic, methodical, and help sentences be understood. Did you notice the Oxford comma in that opening line? Well, do not tell the new health minister as it transpires she cannot abide them.


Isn’t she busy with other matters?

The new UK health secretary, Therese Coffey, has only been in the post a matter of days and amid the many creaking floorboards in the NHS, she has focused first on punctuation. In new guidance issued to health staff in an email, she advised them to “be precise”, “be positive”, avoid using policy "jargon” and come what may, avoid the Oxford comma.


Remind me…?

The comma in question falls before the last item on a written list - one, two, and three rather than one, two and three - and is also known as a ‘serial’ comma. Opinion varies widely on the use of the punctuation that some say introduces ambiguity, while others say it tightens sentences up. And it likely does indeed come down to personal preference.


Coffey’s preference…

…is that it’s a big no-no. According to an article in the Financial Times, she issued guidance under the heading “New Secretary of State Ways of Working Preferences”, with the document put on the Department of Health’s intranet and also forwarded to the UK Health Security Agency. A senior public health official told the paper staff would see the Oxford comma reference as “extremely patronising”, although officials later claimed the document was put together without Coffey’s involvement.



Trawling back through her social media reveal she does indeed have a distaste for the little punctuation mark, writing in 2011 she “cannot bear it” and in 2013 saying, “I abhor the Oxford comma and refuse to use it” before adding in 2015 that it was “one of my pet hates”.


What do officials say?

A department source said the document was victim to “a bit of over eagerness”. Meanwhile, a UKHSA spokesperson said: “UKHSA does not comment on leaked emails or briefings. We value enormously all our hard-working colleagues who work tirelessly to make our nation’s health secure.”


It is controversial?

Its use - or non-usage - sparks debate. The University of Oxford’s own style guide gives as an example, “Note that there is no comma between the penultimate item in a list and/or unless required to prevent ambiguity. However, always insert a comma in this position if it would help prevent confusion”. Examples include, “She left her money to her parents, Mother Theresa and the pope”, pointing out that a comma after “Theresa” would make the sentence clear.


And what’s the reaction been?

If anything, it lightened what has been a sombre period for many on their social media feeds, with one Twitter user saying: “So it’s the Oxford comma that has caused all the problems in the NHS…” To point out the benefits of an Oxford comma, another joked: “I love my parents, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Therese Coffey.”