“There are individuals who embrace the Oxford comma and individuals who don’t,” wrote Lynne Truss in her guide Eats, Shoots and Leaves, “and I’ll simply say this: by no means get between these individuals when drink has been taken.”

It’s “one of the vital controversial punctuation marks in historical past”, mentioned Susie Dent in The i Paper. And now our new Well being Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has taken a stand on the difficulty. In one of many first e-mail edicts to NHS employees from her workplace, they had been warned to avoid “jargon” and “keep away from Oxford commas”. For these not acquainted, the Oxford or serial comma is one which comes earlier than “and” in a collection of three or extra gadgets in an inventory.

Critics accuse it of inflicting pointless cluttering, as in “we ate steak, inexperienced beans, and chips”. However omitting it will possibly trigger confusion, too, as within the sentence: “We went to the park with our canines, Grandma and Grandpa.” The controversy has been raging because the nineteenth century, and has even impressed a rock tune, by Vampire Weekend. The lyrics go: “Who provides a f**okay about an Oxford comma?”

They’d some extent, mentioned Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian. In fact, all of us have “grammar bugbears”. Personally, I’m a fan of the “cadence and rhythm” this comma lends to sentences, though I respect Coffey’s lengthy opposition: she’s been tweeting in opposition to it for years. However ought to it actually be her precedence proper now, when 6.8 million individuals are ready for routine therapy, and 132,000 posts are unfilled? Certainly she has “extra vital issues to deal with”.

Coffey is correct to insist on clear communication within the NHS, mentioned Ruth Dudley Edwards in The Each day Telegraph – the place nowadays, “paperwork are drafted by individuals who don’t even know that the phrase for a organic feminine is ‘lady’”. However she’s incorrect to persecute this “harmless” little comma. The secret’s to not use it on a regular basis, which seems fussy, however solely to stop ambiguity.

It might probably stop main mix-ups: in a single Maine court docket case involving extra time funds to truck drivers, the absence of a single Oxford comma modified the that means of a contract and price employers $5m. It might probably additionally “prevent from public ridicule”. Always remember the well-known (although sadly, it appears, apocryphal) guide dedication: “To my dad and mom, Ayn Rand and God.”