The Daily Telegraph
Civil servants object to Coffey’s ban on jargon, double negatives, and the Oxford comma
‘Although there is usually some guidance [from new ministers], it is not so prescriptive’
THERESE COFFEY has told staff in the Department of Health and Social Care to stop using the Oxford comma in their communications.
The Health Secretary’s office issued guidance advising Whitehall civil servants of her working preferences after she was appointed to the role earlier this month.
The instructions, emailed to employees and published on the department’s intranet, also told them to “be positive”.
The ban on the Oxford comma – a punctuation mark some people place before the last item on a list – has provoked a backlash, with some health workers viewing it as “patronising”.
The guidance, titled “new secretary of state ways of working preferences”, was sent last Thursday and also advised staff to avoid using “jargon”.
It was emailed to workers in Ms Coffey’s department but also forwarded to staff at the UK Health Security Agency.
The message, first reported by the Financial Times, advised workers to “be positive – if we have done something good, let us say so and avoid double negatives”.
One official described the email as “super patronising”, while another said the instructions on the use of Oxford commas would be seen by staff as “extremely patronising”.
Allies of the Health Secretary confirmed the existence of the guidance but said that Ms Coffey had not seen it.
It is not unusual for ministers to set out their preferred ways of working when they take up a new job.
Government sources described the instructions as a “broad guide” for staff, designed to ensure departmental communication is as efficient as possible.
The Oxford comma appears to have been a long-running pet peeve of Ms Coffey, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister. She has tweeted about her opposition to the use of it on a number of occasions. In April 2015, she wrote that it was “one of my pet hates” and in July 2011 she tweeted “I cannot bear it and constantly remove it”.
The email sent by Ms Coffey’s office is said to have annoyed some staff at the Department of Health and Social Care because of its “prescriptive” nature.
One official told the FT: “Although there is usually some guidance [from new ministers], it is not so prescriptive.”