Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #2



Philip Pullman and the Oxford Comma


Philip Pullman recently tweeted that the new Brexit commemorative 50p coin is "illiterate" because its slogan "Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations" lacks an Oxford comma. So it sounds, or could sound, as if we want prosperity with all nations as well as friendship with them. But that's not quite the sense that was intended. We want prosperity, just on its own – and also friendship with all nations. A comma after prosperity would make it clear that the with refers back only as far as friendship. Of course a difficulty here is that with can and should refer back to peace. The whole thing is rather clumsily phrased.


The idea of the Oxford comma – or so I always thought – was to avoid ambiguity in lists where the last two terms linked by "and" could be interpreted either as a single item or two separate ones. Example: The subjects I teach for the Open University are Creative Writing, Children’s Literature, and Philosophy. The Oxford comma is useful there because otherwise readers might think there was a single subject called "Children's Literature and Philosophy".

But I don't think there is any such risk of ambiguity in the case of the Brexit coin slogan. It's not ambiguous, just slightly clumsy. But it would still be clumsy with an Oxford comma. Probably the best solution would have been to change the order of the terms: "Prosperity, peace and friendship with all nations". Then the final two terms both work before "with" and no extra comma is needed.


But why make such a fuss about the punctuation anyway? Pullman just didn't want Brexit and therefore disapproves of the coin. Well, I didn't want Brexit either. But we're stuck with it now and taking a stand on Oxford commas won't change anything.



Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.