Therese Coffey is right on many things. Her new grammatical diktat is not one of them
Published: 15 September 2022
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-what-you-think-of-the-way-I-look-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 Rees-Mogg 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, evidence-based 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 famous (although, sadly, seemingly apocryphal) book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”