Anybody remember Brexit? Before Covid it was dominating headlines around the world. I even came across a story about a comma kerfuffle related to the U.K’s departure from the European Union. If you have taken any of my writing classes, you know how much I love it when punctuation makes the news. Recently, I’ve enjoyed articles on punctuation in texting, a historical case in which the presence of a semicolon changed an election outcome, and the fate of a patent challenge that hinged on a single comma.
I intended to write about the British comma drama back in early 2020 but got sidetracked by the language of Covid. And while this comma news is now over a year old, I think we can all agree that arguing about punctuation is timeless.
The brouhaha centers on a Brexit coin produced by the Bank of England to commemorate the historic event. The coin features a slogan which audaciously eschews the Oxford (or serial) comma. The divisive line reads: “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” The lack of a comma after the word prosperity has inspired fierce deliberation. (For my views on the matter, see photo below.)
The Oxford comma may be the single most contentious element of punctuation in the English language. While both the AP Stylebook and the style guide of The Guardian newspaper (in which the above article appears) recommend using the Oxford comma only when necessary for clarity, proponents argue for its ubiquitous use. Several prominent British writers took to social media to decry the lack of an Oxford comma on the coin. The novelist Philip Pullman tweeted, “The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma and should be boycotted by all literate people.”
It’s an old and, apparently, unceasing debate. Do a quick Google search and you can find plenty of recent arguments both for and against its use. (See here, here, here, and here, if you would like to immerse yourself in the nuances.) For most of us, all we need to know is that, according to major style guides, the Oxford comma is optional unless necessary to avoid confusion. So, type up your sentences, consider their complexity, and make the choice that’s right for you. Or, type up your sentences, consider their complexity and make the choice that’s right for you.