British health ministry calls for end to Oxford commas

Although it is associated with the English city of Oxford, the Oxford comma is not actually considered standard in British English. It is much more widespread in the United States, although American news organisations tend to leave the second comma out (that includes The New York Times, whose style guide advises that it should not be used unless a sentence is otherwise confusing without it).

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This Oxford comma has found itself in the British political spotlight before. When the government released a commemorative 50 pence coin to mark “Brexit day” two years ago, it was marked with the phrase “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”.

That drew widespread criticism from Oxford comma enthusiasts, but it was met with fierce support for the one-comma approach that was rooted in national pride – a second comma was seen by many as an Americanism.

Defenders of the comma will point to the value in its precision. In 2018, a dairy in Maine resolved an overtime dispute with its drivers by agreeing to pay $US5 million in a case that hinged on the absence of an Oxford comma in state law.

Officials in Britain routinely circulate guidance on a new minister’s preferred ways of working, and such memos have raised eyebrows before.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, recently appointed as Britain’s business secretary, was also quick to outline his grammatical grievances when he became leader of the House of Commons in 2019. He was mocked at the time for banning the use of phrases such as “equal”, “very” and “I am pleased to learn”. He also ordered that “non-titled males” should be addressed as “Esq” and, as an avid supporter of Brexit, insisted on imperial rather than metric measurements.

An official under a previous Labour government, Liam Byrne, specified times for bringing him soup and coffee.

The National Health Service remains embroiled in its worst staffing crisis in history, and close to 7 million patients have been left on waiting lists for hospital treatment because of backlogs caused by the pandemic. That, combined with job cuts at the health department and a spiraling cost-of-living crisis, explains in large part why the directive appeared to have landed with a thud.

“Of course, new ministers will want to introduce new priorities and different ways of working,” said Raza, “but part of successful leadership is understanding how messages like this will land with staff.”

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