High-profile author Philip Pullman tweeted on Sunday about the new 50 pence English coin due for release by the Royal Mint on Friday, January 31.
“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” he said.
An Oxford comma is the comma inserted before “and” or “or” in a list to separate the final item in a list from the items that go before it.
Sir Philip lives in Oxford, which voted to remain in the European Union. He has written several bestselling books, including the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. He argues that the commemorative coin requires a comma between “prosperity” and “and” – a very controversial opinion.
When The Guardian republished his tweet in an article, hundreds of responses were posted within hours. Moderators removed many comments – presumably the most heated ones.
The mention of the Oxford (or Harvard or serial) comma unfailingly attracts passionate advocates (of which I am one) and determined detractors.
As Comma Queen Mary Norris, former copy editor at The New Yorker, says:
Nothing, but nothing — profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse — excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma. People love it or hate it, and they are equally ferocious on both sides of the debate. Individual publications have guidelines that sink deep into the psyches of editors and writers. The Times, like most newspapers, does without the serial comma. At The New Yorker, it is a copy editor’s duty to deploy the serial comma, along with lots of other lip-smacking bits of punctuation, as a bulwark against barbarianism.
Although its use is widespread in North America, the Oxford comma is not as widely used in Australia and the UK.
The Australian government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers merely says “sometimes a comma is placed between the last two items to ensure clarity” and doesn’t use it in the manual’s title.
The UK National Curriculum authority warns students will be penalised if they use a serial comma in a list of simple items such as “apples, cheese, and milk”.
Many of the detractors say: “I was taught at school not to use it.”
To them I would say: “Well, you were taught wrong!”
As one poster on The Guardian article comments:
The use of the Oxford comma is not standard practice [in the UK], merely because of the ignorant, narrow-minded grammar school teachers we had.
Many believe it should be used only to avoid ambiguity, as in Robert Fulford’s example of a blooper that occurred in a newspaper reporting on a documentary about Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
My argument is deciding whether or not to use the Oxford comma is an unnecessary burden. I advocate using it at all times, although most journalists aren’t fans of the comma – perhaps because they can save a couple of spaces by omitting it.
Read more: Grammarians rejoice in the $10 million comma
The 50p coin
To return to the quote on the coin in question, “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”, placing an Oxford comma after “prosperity”, as Pullman advocates, doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, to sort out the problem with the quote.
The intent of the quote seems to apply “with all nations” to the three nouns, but by parsing out each section we can see this does not work.
Does “Peace with all nations” make grammatical sense? No.
Does “Prosperity with all nations” make grammatical sense? No.
Whatever committee adapted US President Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration principles “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations” by merely deciding to drop the Oxford comma and echo the rest of his words has resulted in this egregiously inept wording.
As admirable (or pedantic, depending on your feelings about the Oxford comma) as Pullman might be in advocating for the use of the Oxford comma on the coin, it’s clear this coin has committed more than one crime against the rules of grammar.
Authors: Roslyn Petelin, Course coordinator, The University of Queensland