January 31, 2020

Newly-minted Brexit coin proving controversial, you’ll be surprised to hear


A fifty pence coin, non-controversial side up. (Perseus1984 via WikiCommons [CC BY-SA])

In “incredibly predictable news” news, the recently-announced fifty pence coin commemorating the UK’s exit from the European Union* has caused outrage and controversy. But not for the reasons you might think…

The new 50p was unveiled on January 25th by Chancellor Sajid Javid, after a previous incarnation had to be scrapped following a(nother) delay to the previous exit date of October 31st, 2019.

Regardless of your feelings on the coin’s message (which reads “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations,” along with today’s date), there’s a comma missing before the “and.” Or is there? Some say yes, others no.

Most forthright in the former category is His Dark Materials novelist Philip Pullman, who has backed the inclusion of the so-called “Oxford comma”—which sits before “and” in a list, according to some style guides. The Guardian and others reported his intention to boycott the coin for punctuational reasons: “The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” he tweeted.

Susie Dent, etymologist and resident word-wrangler on popular gameshow Countdown, agreed with Pullman: “Yes it is optional: it clarifies things quite often though, and I just find it easier and more consistent to use it all the time.”

All of which throws open the oooold Oxford comma debate again: do we really need one? The Guardian quotes their own style guide in their report:

“…straightforward lists do not need an Oxford comma, but it can sometimes help the reader—and it is sometimes essential. “Compare: ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling’ with ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling’.””

Most other style guides agree there must be flexibility within the rule, leaving it largely open to interpretation. Which means the coin in question—much like the occasion it was designed to celebrate—is either a disaster, a triumph(,) or somewhere in between. We’ll leave you to decide.




*yes, it’s actually happening today. No, we don’t want to talk about it.

Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.