Artillery Row

Throwing good money after bad (grammar)

Dominic Green gives his tuppence on the Brexit 50p comma debate

Not only will Friday be a silent Brexit night for Big Ben. The Brexit 50p piece, a heptagonal symbol of independence restored, is failing to speak unto the nation. The first debate of the brave new age of Brexit is a war of the grammarians. “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations,” says the coin, or the committee who contrived its ostensibly obvious and bland motto.

Philip Pullman, a writer of fantasy novels for “young adults” –– a marketing demographic comprised of dim teenagers and thick grown-ups –– has decreed that “and friendship” should be prefaced by an Oxford comma. For the want of a comma, the coin, Pullman says tolerantly, “should be boycotted by all literate people”. It is not clear why Pullman excluded his readers from this decree, but as his pronunciations are received with the awe once accorded to those of the Archbishop of Canterbury we should address this one, especially as the coin symbolizes what Sajid Javid, who as Chancellor must have signed off on the design, calls “the beginning of this new chapter”.

Pullman is a Remainer, though sticklers might say “was a Remainer”. So is, or was, Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Abell said that the absent comma was “not perhaps the only objection” to the coin, and that “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”. It would be tempting to see this dispute as a grammatical palimpsest for the Remain-Leave divide, were it not that Charles Moore of The Spectator, a longstanding advocate of Brexit, has agreed with Pullman and Abell.

The usage or non-usage of the Oxford comma is not a question of grammar

The Oxford comma haunts my dreams. I was schooled in England, where the Oxford comma tends to be used out of syntactical necessity, but I live in the United States, where the Oxford comma is usually compulsory. The British generally add an Oxford comma when they have no choice; it’s an emergency device for avoiding confusion over the relationship between elements of a list. The Americans only remove an Oxford comma when they have no choice. I write for publications in both the United States and the United Kingdom, so have to remember two sets of rules, plus variations of house style. And I edit for the American edition of The Spectator which, obviously, has developed a hybrid house style along the lines of Mick Jagger’s transatlantic accent.

Those hours of my waking days not devoted to swapping double quotation marks for single ones, and vice versa, are given to tinkering with Oxford commas, dropping them in and out of my sentences and other people’s, looking for the sense of the sentence and how the punctuation will affect the rhythm. My only conclusion is that the usage or non-usage of the Oxford comma is not a question of grammar. At least, not entirely. It’s also a question of syntax.

The Chancellor Sajid Javid shows off the new Brexit coin

Grammar is the rules for organizing words into sentences. Syntax is the study of meaning in sentences. Punctuation, to comma or not to comma, is essential to both grammar and syntax, but the means of grammar should serve the ends of syntax. The purpose of writing is reading, so clarity is the goal. But the clarity we seek isn’t just on the page. When we read, we hear what we’re reading in our minds. So the clarity needs to be heard as well as seen, in the mind as well as on the page. A territory is governed by one set of rules for grammar, but it contains infinite varieties of mind. Hence no one can agree on the finer details: the “correct” grammar is in the ear of the beholder.

The comma-less slogan “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” implies that each individual item on a list of three (Peace, Prosperity, Friendship) has the same relationship to “all nations”:

Peace with all nations

Prosperity with all nations

Friendship with all nations

As peace, prosperity and friendship have the same relationship to “all nations”, it’s permissible to combine these three sentiments:

Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations

The pro-Oxford comma camp argue that the three sentiments cannot be combined. Charles Moore writes that “the word ‘prosperity’ is not intended to link to the phrase ‘with all nations’”. Charles Moore knows a lot of important people, so he may well know the intentions of the person(s) who contrived the motto on the coin. But if he doesn’t know their innermost workings, then he is speculating. Our interpretations are, like much of our morality, situational. That in itself might be a British-style argument for adding an Oxford comma.

The novelist Philip Hensher makes a different case for the Oxford comma. On Twitter, a realm without grammar, syntax or shame, Hensher has asked if it’s possible –– grammatically, that is –– to have “prosperity with all nations”. I don’t see why not, and especially in this context. Collective prosperity was Ted Heath’s argument for Britain entering the European Communities in 1975, and collective prosperity was a popular argument in 2016 for voting to leave the European Union.

The reason that the grammar on the coin is correct –– which is to say, serves the purpose of syntax and comprehension –– is this: Adding a comma alters the rhythm. Instead of the emphasis falling as it currently does, on “Friendship”, which I think we can all agree is a good thing to emphasize, an Oxford comma would shift the emphasis backwards onto “and”. What matters most is comprehension: how the sentence sounds in our ear. Admittedly, the sentence might have been clearer if it had swapped “to” for “with”:

Peace, prosperity and friendship to all nations

But it’s too late, as all three million of the coins have now been smelted in Sajid Javid’s shed. The same goes for the Guardian’s citing as precedent Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address of 1801, in which he averred that the “essential principles” of his government would include prosperity and an effulgence of Oxford commas for all white males: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”.

At a time when Britain is recovering its independence, American precedents are irrelevant, as well as being precisely the sort of thing that, if no dividend of Remain snark attached to it, the Guardian would revile as groveling to the Yanks. It was Noah Webster’s prerogative as a freeborn American to ruin the English language as he saw fit. It is ours to decide how we use it in future. For this reason, I recommend that we acknowledge that the terms of Brexit attenuate Northern Ireland’s relationship to the rest of us by adding a comma, to read:

The United Kingdom of Great Britain, & Northern Ireland

Fortunately, the people of Britain, still raw from the feud over Brexit, possess an answer to the comma conundrum. The prime minister should call a referendum. Two, if necessary. Two referenda.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover