There’s been a bit of a hoo-hah this week about the punctuation in the message on the reverse of the 50p coin being issued tomorrow to mark the UK’s departure from the European Union. The phrase, borrowed from Thomas Jefferson, reads:
with all nations
The distinguished author Philip Pullman has suggested a boycott of the coin because it’s ‘illiterate’. He reckons there should be a comma after the word ‘prosperity’. Is he right? Well, there is a case for that extra comma, but in this instance I don’t think it’s essential. The meaning of the message is clear, isn’t it? Punctuation is there simply as an aid to clarity and understanding.
In a nutshell, commas are used to separate items in a list:
I packed my bag and in it I put my brush, my comb, my toothpaste, my teeth, my pyjamas and my book.
In a list there is no need for a comma before the ‘and’, unless the sense requires it. Here it is probably helpful:
The list of the great lovers of history should include Adam and Eve, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, and Kermit and Miss Piggy.
Without that final comma, you leave open the possibility that Antony and Cleopatra and Kermit and Miss Piggy were part of some sort of time-travelling foursome.
Now, how many people am I talking about here – two or four?
I want to thank my parents, Charles and Alice.
If it’s just two people, my parents who are called Charles and Alice, one comma is sufficient. But if it’s four – my parents plus Charles and Alice – to make that clear you need to add an extra comma to your list:
I want to thank my parents, Charles, and Alice.
‘Making it clear’ – that’s what it’s all about. And that’s why some people – especially those who went to Oxford University or who work for the Oxford University Press – insist on having a comma before the word ‘and’ even in the most straightforward list. This is known as the ‘serial comma’ or the ‘Oxford comma’, and it can be useful:
My favourite flavours of drink are orange, lemon, raspberry, and lime and ginger. They used to be strawberry, apple, pear, lime, and ginger.
Without the Oxford comma, you can give people the wrong idea. Famously, The Times newspaper once ran a brief description of a television documentary featuring Peter Ustinov, promising:
Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.
With the Brexit coin, you can look at it both ways. The list features either three elements - peace/prosperity/friendship - or two: ‘peace’, plus ‘prosperity and friendship’, the last two linked without a comma for a reason: trading leads to friendship and trading brings prosperity. You can read it whichever way you prefer. In fact, if you can’t quite decide, given it’s a coin, you can toss for it. Literally.
Oh yes, you can have a lot of fun with a comma.
(I’ve got pages and pages about the joys of punctuation in my book: Have you eaten Grandma? https://www.amazon.co.uk/Have-... )