LONDON — The government department that oversees Britain’s state-run health care system, is confronting a number of urgent problems: too many unfilled positions for doctors and nurses, too many patients waiting for treatment, too many aging hospitals — and, according to a new directive, too many commas.
The Department of Health and Social Care, which is under new leadership after Liz Truss became prime minister earlier this month, has told its employees to avoid using the Oxford comma — the contentious second comma in a series like “A, B, and C.”
The guidance, which also told employees to “be positive” and to avoid “jargon” in their communications, was issued to hundreds of employees. The existence of the guidance, which was confirmed by the department, was first reported by the Financial Times.
Union representatives expressed frustration at the guidance from the department, which is now headed by Thérèse Coffey, one of the new prime minister’s top allies. The department not only oversees the National Health Service but played a crucial role in coordinating the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Comments like this from the Health Secretary do nothing to help the morale of an already tired and overstretched work force,” said Jawad Raza, a chief representative of the health agency’s civil servants, adding that the “staff worked nonstop” during the pandemic.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care disputed one element of the Financial Times’ account, saying that the guidance had been issued by Ms. Coffey’s office, but not her.
Still, Ms. Coffey seems unlikely to disagree with it: She has made no secret of her distaste for the Oxford comma, with social media posts from more than a decade ago making clear where she stands.
In 2011, she wrote on Twitter that she “cannot bear it and constantly remove it,” and two years later said in separate posts that “I abhor the Oxford comma and refuse to use it” and referred to it as “one of my pet hates.”
Although it is associated with the English city of Oxford, the Oxford comma is not actually considered standard in British English. It is much more widespread in the United States, although American news organizations tend to leave the second comma out (that includes The New York Times, whose style guide advises that it should not be used unless a sentence is otherwise confusing without it).
This Oxford comma has found itself in the British political spotlight before.When the government released a commemorative 50 pence coin (worth about 58 cents) to mark “Brexit day” two years ago, it was marked with the phrase “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”
That drew widespread criticism from Oxford comma enthusiasts, but it was met with fierce support for the one-comma approach that was rooted in national pride — a second comma was seen by many as an Americanism.
Defenders of the comma will point to the value in its precision. In 2018, a dairy in Maine resolved an overtime dispute with its drivers by agreeing to pay $5 million in a case that hinged on the absence of an Oxford comma in state law.
Officials in Britain routinely circulate guidance on a new minister’s preferred ways of working, and such memos have raised eyebrows before.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, recently appointed as Britain’s business secretary, was also quick to outline his grammatical grievances when he became leader of the House of Commons in 2019. He was mocked at the time for banning the use of phrases such as “equal,” “very” and “I am pleased to learn.” He also ordered that “non-titled males” should be addressed as “Esq,” and, as an avid supporter of Brexit, insisted on imperial rather than metric measurements.
An official under a previous Labour government, Liam Byrne, specified times for bringing him soup and coffee.
The National Health Service remains embroiled in its worst ever staffing crisis in history, and close to seven million patients have been left on waiting lists for hospital treatment because of backlogs caused by the pandemic. That, combined with job cuts at the health department and a spiraling cost-of-living crisis, explains in large part why the directive appeared to have landed with a thud.
“Of course, new ministers will want to introduce new priorities and different ways of working,” said Mr. Raza, “but part of successful leadership is understanding how messages like this will land with staff.”