The Daily Telegraph

Ban HR jargon, but the Oxford comma deserves an exemption

- Ruth dudley edwards follow Ruth Dudley Edwards on Twitter @Ruthde; read more at telegraph.co.uk/opinion

Having acquired more informatio­n on Thérèse Coffey in the last three weeks than in her three years as secretary of state for work and pensions, I now know what I think of her. I’m a fan.

In an era when socialists and retired terrorists sport the hair, teeth and wardrobes of senior executives, I love the Deputy Prime Minister’s refreshing I-don’t-give-a-damn-whatyou-think-of-the-way-ilook-or-live style. Now she has emerged as a potential leader in the war against another foe: those who wish to corrupt our society and our language – which in government mostly means the fifth column known as “human resources”, the obfuscator­y term for what the sane call “people”.

Although Jacob Reesmogg has been naughtily claiming the credit, it was Michael Gove of blessed memory who on his appointmen­t to the Cabinet Office in February 2020 became the key figure in resisting this enemy within government. He set in train the enormous task of cleaning up Civil Service training by replacing the woke communicat­ion that has spread its tentacles into almost every department. He ordered that officials be taught once more how to write literate, evidenceba­sed briefs free of ideology. Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch have been significan­t warriors, too.

This week Ms Coffey joined the fight. When it comes to the health sector, where these days documents are drafted by people who don’t even know that the word for a biological female is “woman”, I’m delighted with her instructio­n to officials to steer clear of jargon and to “be precise”. Inevitably, Ms Coffey has been accused by some of being patronisin­g and annoying staff, for in these days of entitlemen­t, apparently civil servants are indignant at the suggestion that ministers might tell them to do anything, let alone write clear English.

But sadly, I now have to be critical of Ms Coffey on a matter of grave importance. Because as part of her new set of instructio­ns to officials, she has reportedly ordered them to avoid using the Oxford comma. No, no, no, Ms Coffey. The Oxford comma might be despised by those who think it pointless, as in: “We went to France, Germany, and Italy.” But people should just be taught to use it properly.

Indeed, abolishing it would be a major injustice to an innocent punctuatio­n device that sometimes serves a purpose. It is, for instance, a vital tool to use against dangerous ambiguity. Take the American case in which Maine state law sought to exempt employers from paying overtime for “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distributi­on”. The lack of a comma after “shipment” cost employers a packet.

Unfortunat­ely, it also led to the foul American practice of using it in every list just in case, which in turn has caused it to be treated with disdain in England. Mr Rees-mogg has had the decency to admit that his dislike of the Oxford comma “is mere prejudice.”

But Ms Coffey is a scientist who has great battles to win. This is not a hill for her to die on. Used sparingly, this little punctuatio­n mark can even be of literary value, introducin­g an ominous pause, as in John Irving’s “Death is horrible, final, and frequently premature.” And it can save you from public ridicule. Never forget the apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

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