Commemoration Without Commas

Thursday, January 30, 2020


Commemorative Brexit coin, 2020. HM Treasury.

The United Kingdom has issued a new fifty-pence piece to commemorate its exit (commonly known as Brexit) from the European Union. The coin features the phrase “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”


The lack of a serial comma, also called an Oxford comma, before the word and has led to loud criticism. British novelist Philip Pullman has gone so far as to call for a boycott. The Guardian reports:

“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” wrote the novelist on Twitter, while Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell wrote that, while it was “not perhaps the only objection” to the Brexit-celebrating coin, “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me.”

The quote echoes Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address as U.S. president in 1801, when he laid out the “essential principles” of his government—including (and note the comma usage) “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”


Trenton Battle Monument, 2014. Photograph by Famartin. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Trenton Battle Monument, commemorating an important victory for Continental forces in the American War of Independence, was originally built between 1891 and 1893. In 1897 the monument received an expensive new bronze door and plaques inscribed with the names of those responsible for building it: the members of the Trenton Battle Monument Association, the sculptors, the granite workers, and the architect. The Jersey City News was perplexed at the lack of punctuation on the monument.

[The door] is a massive affair, with grated glass upper panel. On a lower panel is the quotation, “All our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton,” from the speech of Lord George Germain, Colonial Secretary of State of King George III, in the British House of Commons, on May 3, 1779.

This is here called a quotation, but the makers of bronze tablets evidently do not know what quotation marks are; or, in fact, any kind of punctuation. An examination of three bronze tablets in the monument discloses but one mark of punctuation, and that is an apostrophe in the name “O’Donovan.” Commas are regarded as an unnecessary evil, and the fact that a period should be placed after an initial was so palpable, evidently, in the mind of the bronze letterer, that it went without saying or doing. At any rate, there are none in the tablets.