The launch of a 50p coin to mark Britain’s exit from the EU prompted calls for its boycott on the grounds that its slogan “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” was poorly punctuated.
“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” the novelist Philip Pullman tweeted. Stig Abell, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, agreed: “The lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me,” he said. The broadcaster and writer Joan Bakewell came to the coin’s defence, saying “I was always taught you didn’t have a comma before ‘and’ . . .”
Of course, there is more to the fuss than the Oxford comma — a punctuation mark that appears before the words “and” or “or” at the end of a list. Friday night’s EU departure was an emotional moment for both Brexit’s champions and its opponents. Some Remainers vowed to refuse to accept the coin as change or to donate any they acquired to charity.
With or without an Oxford comma, the coin’s wording falls flat. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who were responsible for two brilliant three-word slogans, “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”, could surely have thought of something punchier.
“Peace, prosperity and friendship” is hardly a match for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, or “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the US Declaration of Independence, or “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations”, which was in Thomas Jefferson’s first presidential inaugural address, and which the Brexit coin appears to have lightly plagiarised.
It is not as if the creators of the Brexit 50p didn’t have time. A coin was originally planned for the scheduled leaving date of March 29 last year. Then one was meant to appear for the later departure date of October 31. When that didn’t happen, about 1m coins had to be melted down.
As to the Oxford comma, it is more frequent in the US than the UK, although, as we see above, the Declaration of Independence omitted it. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which advocates employing the Oxford comma, notes that its use is “fervently debated”. Fowler’s concedes that the decision to use the comma is “generally a matter of individual house or editorial style”. The common sense approach is to be consistent. And everyone should use an Oxford comma “where not to do so would create ambiguity or nonsense”, such as “I would like to thank my parents, Sinead O’Connor and the Pope”.
A celebrated example of a missing Oxford comma causing real mischief was a 2017 US legal dispute in which five Maine truck drivers were able to claim the overtime pay that was available under state law for all workers except those involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of agricultural produce such as meat, fish and perishable foods.
The dairy that employed the truckers said that they were not entitled to overtime as they distributed goods. The truckers argued, successfully, that for that to be true, the law should have said “packing for shipment, or distribution”. Without an Oxford comma, the law denied extra payment only to those doing the packing for shipment or distribution, and the truckers didn’t do the packing. “For want of a comma, we have this case,” the court said, finding in favour of the truckers.
So is the Oxford comma necessary on the Brexit coin? At first I thought not. The slogan might have been bathetic, but it wasn’t ambiguous. Still, there seemed to be something discordant about the wording. Finally, I realised what it was. “Peace with all nations” works. So does “Friendship with all nations”. But “Prosperity with all nations” makes no sense. There are three abstract nouns on the coin, and only two can be followed by the preposition “with”.
For the slogan to gel, it could have read “Peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations”, as Mr Pullman seemed to be suggesting. But that leaves the word “peace” on its own: a nation at peace just with itself, or with others? To really work as a phrase (if not as an inspiration), the coin should have said “Prosperity, and peace and friendship with all nations”.