Philip Pullman calls for boycott of Brexit 50p coin over 'missing' Oxford comma

Alison Flood
<span>Photograph: HM Treasury/PA</span>
Photograph: HM Treasury/PA

It is a debate that has torn the nation in two, ripped friends and family apart, and entrenched deep and uncrossable lines throughout the land. Should the Royal Mint have used an Oxford comma on its Brexit 50p piece?

Three million coins bearing the slogan “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” are due to enter circulation from 31 January, with Sajid Javid, chancellor of the exchequer, expressing his hope that the commemorative coin will mark “the beginning of this new chapter” as the UK leaves the European Union.

However, early responses include His Dark Materials novelist Philip Pullman’s criticism of its punctuation.

“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” wrote the novelist on Twitter, while Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell wrote that, while it was “not perhaps the only objection” to the Brexit-celebrating coin, “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”.

The quote echoes Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address as US president in 1801, when he laid out the “essential principles” of his government – including (and note the comma usage) “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”. A plan to produce a commemorative Brexit coin last year had to be abandoned because it was marked with the original departure date of 31 October.

The criticism of the new coins follows the Bank of England’s decision to use a quote on its Jane Austen bank note about the joys of reading – apparently unaware that the character who utters the words has no interest in reading. Ireland’s Central Bank, meanwhile, misquoted Ulysses on a commemorative coin intended to honour James Joyce.

The Oxford, or serial, comma is included before the final “and” in lists. It has fierce defenders and equally fierce detractors – in 2011, when it was erroneously reported that the Oxford comma was being dropped by the University of Oxford style guide, one punctuation lover asked: “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.”

According to the Guardian style guide, straightforward lists do not need an Oxford comma, but it can sometimes help the reader – and it is sometimes essential. “Compare: ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling’ with ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling’.”

The Associated Press is similarly cautious about coming down on one side of the debate. “We say: If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma. But: If a comma doesn’t help make clear what is being said, don’t use it. ‘The flag is red, white and blue’ is clear. Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction. For example: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.”

In 2017, however, the lack of an Oxford comma helped a group of Maine dairy drivers in a dispute about overtime pay. The state’s law had said that the following activities did not count for overtime pay: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” The drivers had said that because there was no comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution”, the law was referring to the single activity of “packing”, not to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. And as the drivers distributed, but did not pack, the goods, this would make them eligible for overtime pay. The judge sided with the drivers.

“For want of a comma, we have this case,” he wrote.