Grammar Semicolon Use in Lists |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Semicolon Use in Lists

A properly inserted semicolon helps to provide pause and clarifying separation in sentences. It also connects closely related thoughts. In this review, we’ll further consider how the semicolon operates in forming lists that involve items in a series.

Semicolons Use in Lists: Items with Internal Punctuation

Some of us at some point may have come across text similar to the following:

Marilyn continued developing a wardrobe that would complement her latest interests in style. It would feature retro silhouettes, different patterns with mixing of some, muted fall colors or blacks, whites, and reds, rich, vibrant textures, shoes with ankle straps, and definition of the waist. 

We may be able to interpret what’s being written overall, but some of us may also feel as if we need to back up in some places to ensure full understanding.

Our job as writers is to convey a thought as clearly and easily as possible for our audience. The same paragraph could be made more reader friendly by separating the items into a scannable list. This is particularly true when we have internal punctuation among our items.

To do this in formal writing, we would first separate each item into lines of a list. Next, we would use a semicolon at the end of every line except for the last line to indicate the items are separated within continuing, punctuated text. We would then include the word and at the end of the second-to-last line and add a concluding period to the last line.

Because the text is continuing, we would not capitalize the first letter of each line.

Marilyn continued developing a wardrobe that would complement her latest interests in style. It would feature:

  • retro silhouettes;
  • different patterns with mixing of some;
  • muted fall colors or blacks, whites, and reds;
  • rich, vibrant textures;
  • shoes with ankle straps; and
  • definition of the waist. 

Let’s consider another instance in which a list with semicolons can make content more readable.

Leticia loves to travel. Just a few of the places she has been are Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich, Germany, Rome, Naples, and Florence, Italy, Casablanca, Morocco, Nairobi, Kenya, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan.

Right away we can see this text needs semicolons to better organize all of the commas in it. An initial treatment might look like this:

Leticia loves to travel. Just a few of the places she has been are Madrid and Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich Germany; Rome, Naples, and Florence, Italy; Casablanca, Morocco; Nairobi, Kenya; Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Tokyo, Japan.

The semicolons divide the items in our series more clearly. For some readers, however, the paragraph might still be an eyeful. If we wish to separate the items for easier reading within formal writing, we would once again break out the items into separate lines, end all but the last line with a semicolon, add and at the end of the second-to-last line, and conclude the last line with a period. We also would not capitalize the first letter of each line.

Leticia loves to travel. Just a few of the places she has been are:

  • Madrid and Barcelona, Spain;
  • Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich Germany;
  • Rome, Naples, and Florence, Italy;
  • Casablanca, Morocco;
  • Nairobi, Kenya;
  • Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel;
  • Petersburg, Russia; and
  • Tokyo, Japan.

Semicolons Use in Lists: Long or Complex Content

In some cases we may also wish to create a list with semicolons if the text is long and increasingly complex for the reader to process. This is true even if the content does not have internal punctuation.

After examination, the association board determined that the resident had completed the right paperwork for building a shed, that the shed satisfied association requirements for external structures, that the complainant did not have proper grounds to request the shed’s removal, and that the complainant’s motions to the board should desist. 

Now let’s break that up:

After a lengthy examination, the association board determined that the:

  • resident had completed the right paperwork for building a shed;
  • shed satisfied association requirements for external structures;
  • complainant did not have proper grounds to request the shed’s removal; and
  • complainant’s motions to the board should desist. 

Note also that breaking the longer content into an itemized list with semicolons allows us to omit multiple references to the words that and the that had begun each dependent clause in the original text.

Related Topics

Semicolons
The Man Who Hated Semicolons
Connecting Sentences with Commas and Semicolons

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *