What is an Oxford comma? Example and why Therese Coffey wants to ban civil servants from using it at work

The Health Secretary has said she “cannot bear” the use of the Oxford comma

Health Secretary Therese Coffey has sparked annoyance among government staff by asking them not to use a certain piece of punctuation.

Coffey has requested that civil servants no longer use oxford commas in a document which has been called “patronising” by staff.

But, just what is an oxford comma, what is an example of one, and why doesn’t Therese Coffey want them used?

Here’s what you need to know.

The Health Secretary Therese Coffey has said she “cannot bear” the use of the Oxford comma.

What is an Oxford comma?


The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma or the Harvard comma, is the final comma in a list of things. It always comes before the word “and”.

Use of the Oxford comma is stylistic, which means that some people use it and some people do not.

Unless you are writing for a specific publication which has set rules you need to follow, it’s a personal choice whether or not to use oxford commas.

What is an example of an Oxford comma?

An example of an oxford comma is below:

I need to buy a new book, a pencil, a pen, and a ruler.


This is how the same sentence would appear without an oxford comma.

I need to buy a new book, a pencil, a pen and a ruler.

In certain sentences, the use of an oxford comma could help to clarify the meaning of a sentence and prevent some strange misunderstandings.

For example, without an oxford comma the meaning of the below sentence is unclear.

I love my parents, Ed Sheeran and Adele.

With the oxford comma in place, it would be obvious that this is a list of three separate things, but without it it could be interpreted in an incorrect way.


Some people argue that such sentences could be rearranged so that the meaning is clear and no oxford comma is needed.

For example, the above sentence could become I love Ed Sheeran, Adele and my parents.

Why does Therese Coffey want to ban Oxford commas?

The new Health Secretary supposedly issued a document to staff which, among other things, asked them not to use the oxford comma, according to The Financial Times.

The document was called “New secretary of state ways of working preferences”, and it asked employees to “be precise” and “be positive”

It also allegedly included the line “if we have done something good, let us say so and avoid double negatives.”


Coffey also came under fire for the document on Twitter from NHS staff and patients.

One person said: “Therese Coffey’s email to NHS staff banning the use of the Oxford comma is patronising, petty, and annoying.”

It is not unusual for ministerial teams to set out ways of working for staff when new ministers are appointed, according to government ministers.

Coffey has previously taken to Twitter to express her dislike of the Oxford comma, saying in 2015 it was one of her “pet hates”.


She has also stated that she “cannot bear it” and “I abhor the Oxford comma and refuse to use it” in posts on the social media site.