Is the Oxford comma really a political priority?


“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t,” wrote Lynne Truss in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, “and I’ll just say this: never get between those people when drink has been taken.”

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It is “one of the most controversial punctuation marks in history”, said Susie Dent in The i Paper. And now our new Health Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has taken a stand on the issue. In one of the first email edicts to NHS staff from her office, they were warned to steer clear of “jargon” and “avoid Oxford commas”. For those not familiar, the Oxford or serial comma is one that comes before “and” in a series of three or more items in a list.

Critics accuse it of causing needless cluttering, as in “we ate steak, green beans, and chips”. But omitting it can cause confusion, too, as in the sentence: “We went to the park with our dogs, Grandma and Grandpa.” The debate has been raging since the 19th century, and has even inspired a rock song, by Vampire Weekend. The lyrics go: “Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?”

They had a point, said Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian. Of course, we all have “grammar bugbears”. Personally, I’m a fan of the “cadence and rhythm” this comma lends to sentences, although I respect Coffey’s long opposition: she’s been tweeting against it for years. But should it really be her priority right now, when 6.8 million people are waiting for routine treatment, and 132,000 posts are unfilled? Surely she has “more important things to focus on”.

Coffey is right to insist on clear communication in the NHS, said Ruth Dudley Edwards in The Daily Telegraph – where these days, “documents are drafted by people who don’t even know that the word for a biological female is ‘woman’”. But she’s wrong to persecute this “innocent” little comma. The key is not to use it all the time, which looks fussy, but only to prevent ambiguity.

It can prevent major mix-ups: in one Maine court case involving overtime payments to truck drivers, the absence of a single Oxford comma changed the meaning of a contract and cost …read more

Source:: The Week – All news


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