What an Oxford comma actually is, and the Thérèse Coffey row explained

by 24britishtvSept. 15, 2022, 9 p.m. 20
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Thérèse Coffey has come under fire after her office reportedly issued guidance which including telling employees to avoid using “Oxford commas”.

An email, understood to have been sent to staff at the Department of Health and Social Care and sent on to workers at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on behalf of the new Health Secretary urged staff to “be positive” and avoid using policy wonk “jargon”.

But what is an Oxford comma, and why has the minister spoken about it in the past? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is an Oxford comma?

Essentially, the Oxford comma is a final comma used at the end of a list of things.

Also known as a serial comma or the Harvard comma, is used in a list of three or more items, placed between the conjunction and the final item on the list.

So, for example, in the sentence, “Dogs are furry, cute, and friendly”, the Oxford comma comes before the word “and”.

In cases like these, you can remove the comma without making the sentence any more difficult to understand (“dogs are furry, cute and friendly”). On this basis, many style guides recommend omitting them.

However, there are occasions in which an Oxford comma can change how a sentence is read.

“I like ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, Marmite and broccoli” could be construed as you saying that you want all three of these things on top of your desert.

However, writing “I like ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, Marmite, and broccoli” makes it clear that you enjoy all these things separately.

As Grammarly explains, critics of the Oxford comma advocate restructuring a sentence to avoid the meaning behind change by removing a comma.

For example, the sentence “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” might lead the reader to infer that the writer is the offspring of a renowned recording artist and an accident-prone nursery rhyme character.

By switching the sentence around to “I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents,” the meaning becomes clear without having to add an additional comma.

What is the Coffey row all about?

The Financial Times (FT), which first reported the story, said the document was titled “New secretary of state ways of working preferences”.

It asked employees to “be precise” and “be positive – if we have done something good, let us say so and avoid double negatives”, the FT said.

One UKHSA employee told the FT that the email was “super patronising” and added: “The idea that we have to frame issues positively indicates a person who doesn’t want to deal with problems, so that’s not encouraging.”

Ms Coffey also came under fire for the email on Twitter from NHS staff and patients.

According to government sources, it is not unusual for ministerial teams to set out ways of working for staff when new ministers are appointed.

They said the Government has “set out a broad guide for staff to help provide an efficient service to the public and deliver better outcomes to patients”.

The FT reported that UKHSA workers were feeling “demoralised” after the Government earlier this year made substantial job cuts to fixed-term staff who were involved in outbreak control during the Covid pandemic.

Some permanent staff have been offered a 2.5 per cent pay increase to help manage the rising cost of living.

“We are actually getting a salary cut,” one employee with knowledge of the plans told the FT.

Ms Coffey has discussed her dislike of the Oxford comma on Twitter in the past, saying in 2015 it was one of her “pet hates”.

She has also stated that she “cannot bear it” and “I abhor the Oxford comma and refuse to use it” in posts on the platform.

A UKHSA spokesman said: “UKHSA does not comment on leaked emails or briefings.

“We value enormously all of our hard-working colleagues who work tirelessly to make our nation’s health secure.”

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