What is the Oxford Comma? Therese Coffey under fire for remarks

·2-min read

The Oxford comma is one of the linguistic devices that has always caused division and debate.

Now, new Health Secretary Therese Coffey has come under fire after her office issued guidance telling workers to “be positive” and avoid using policy wonk “jargon”. The “Oxford comma” was referred to as one of the pieces of jargon that shouldn’t be used. Some think that this guidance is unnecessary and patronising.

The email is 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).

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

The document 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 is also being criticised on Twitter for the email, by NHS staff and patients.

Government sources have said 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 also 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.

What is the Oxford Comma?

Ironically, the Oxford Dictionary has all the answers. The official definition of the Oxford comma is “a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’.”

For example: “Today I went to lunch with my roommates, Tom, and Molly.”

The comma between “Tom” and “and” tells us that all three entities mentioned are separate and that Tom and Molly are not the speaker’s roommates, but additional lunchmates.

Whether or not to use the comma is up to you, and will sometimes differ depending on what you’re writing for.