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The Oxford comma or not, and does it matter?

Mike McNaught Davis 28 September 2022
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Of some of the more recent commentary on matters of English style, UK Health Secretary Therese Coffey’s recent utterance on the Oxford comma shone brightly in the ether:

“I cannot bear it”, she said.

Though it was perhaps a surprising point for Ms Coffey to focus on so early in her tenure, it was also rather wonderful that a small and relatively insignificant feature of English orthography should elicit such a passionate response. Admittedly, she had been reportedly saying this as far back as 2011 – but now she is health secretary, her comments face far greater scrutiny. And her guidance on language to be used in the NHS seems to have not gone down too well with some.

To be clear about what we are dealing with here, the Oxford comma (or serial comma) is that comma that comes towards the end of a list before the final and. Some writers include it, some don’t. In the US, it is widely used; less so in the UK – although it is standard in British dictionaries (the comma takes its name from the Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary).

The Oxford comma can serve a purpose in the avoidance of ambiguity. There are plenty of comic examples where its omission renders the meaning preposterous:

“I have the utmost respect for my parents, God and the Queen.”

The writer seems to claim both deific and royal lineage! Probably, he or she meant this:

“I have the utmost respect for my parents, God, and the Queen.”

Sometimes, you really need the Oxford comma!

On the other hand, a serial comma can sometimes create ambiguity:

“I had dinner with a young Argentinian lady, a tango expert, and a grey-bearded big-game hunter.”

Were there three people at the table or four? If there were four, ambiguity could be avoided by leaving out the Oxford comma:

“I had dinner with a young Argentinian lady, a tango expert and a grey-bearded big-game hunter.”

Styling it out

Generally, style guides stipulate a preference for either using or omitting the serial comma. One might scoff at Ms Coffey’s heavy-handedness, but at least she appears to be calling for a uniform approach. Some more sophisticated style guides, however, call for the Oxford comma to be used when it helps. The Economist, for example, recommends a serial comma only when one of the items in a list contains the word and, which seems sensible:

“They played hangman, noughts and crosses, and a couple of boardgames.”

Let’s be precise

And to be fair to her, Ms Coffey did not only discuss the Oxford comma. Less reported was her additional guidance on avoiding jargon. Here, we most certainly agree. Jargon can be misleading and easily misunderstood. Far better to avoid jargon or, if you have to use it, offer an explanation. Ms Coffey – rightly, in our view – stated that written communication should be “precise”. It pays to think of the reader. Am I conveying the message as effectively as I could do? Am I giving the reader every opportunity to understand it?

Precise writing is to be prized. If the point of communication is to convey a message effectively, you need to be consistent in your linguistic conventions to give it your best shot. That’s why we always suggest that our clients should take time, often with our help, to develop a style guide. While we try not to be too prescriptive (although we have our preferences), it helps everyone – most particularly the reader – if the application of style principles is consistent.

Sentencing the Oxford comma

A little flexibility can be no bad thing. The Oxford comma can sometimes assist in conveying the intended meaning. So Therese Coffey’s disdain for it is somewhat at odds with her crusade for clarity. Indeed, she rather embarrassingly went against her own advice by using a serial comma in a more recent NHS communication! Ms Coffey, then, might be well advised to be more tolerant. When the aim is precision, the Oxford comma can often earn its place.