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Who gives a stuff about an Oxford comma? We all should

Thérèse Coffey, centre, outside No 10 Downing Street
Thérèse Coffey. ‘When communicating on a matter as vital as health, avoiding confusion should be paramount,’ writes Ross McQueen. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Thérèse Coffey’s leaked memo to staff has resurrected an old debate about the Oxford comma (Coffey urges staff to be positive, be precise, and not use Oxford commas, 15 September).

As a clear writing coach, I am often asked for my advice on the Oxford comma. It is always this: if one will aid the clarity of your sentence, you should use it. If it will not, then leave it out.

For example, in the sentence: “I bought apples, pears and bananas”, adding a comma after “pears” will not make the sentence clearer. But consider the following sentence: “I bought apples and pears on Tuesday, bananas and peaches on Wednesday, and on Thursday I bought mangoes and oranges.” If you leave out the Oxford comma after “Wednesday”, there is a chance that your reader will understand that you bought bananas and peaches both on Wednesday and on Thursday. The confusion may only be momentary, but the Oxford comma eliminates this confusion altogether.

While the consequences of misunderstanding a sentence about buying fruit would most likely be minor, they could become more serious in legal text or in a set of instructions. And when communicating on a matter as vital as health, avoiding confusion should be paramount.
Ross McQueen
Brussels, Belgium

• Sometimes the Oxford comma is obtrusive and serves no purpose; sometimes it avoids ambiguity, as in the famous example in the Times: “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” The interesting thing about the intervention on the subject by the deputy prime minister is that it illustrates a tendency for some people to see simple solutions to fairly complex issues.
Neil Ferguson
Paris, France

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