Semicolons in a List

by Craig Shrives

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How to Use Semicolons in a List

Use semicolons in a list to separate list items if one of the list items has a comma. Look at this list for example:
  • John, the baker
  • Simon, the policeman
  • Toby, the architect
  • (In this list, each one of three list items has its own comma, but to justify using semicolons, only one has to have a comma.)
If this list were written in running text (i.e., not as bullet points), it could be written like this:

John, the baker; Simon, the policeman; and Toby, the architect.
(Notice how semicolons are used to separate the list items.)

Normally, we use commas to separate the items in a list. Look at this list for example:
  • John
  • Simon
  • Toby
This is a normal list. It would be written like this:

John, Simon, and Toby.
(There are no semicolons in this list because none of the list items contains a comma. However, if one or more of those list items had a comma, semicolons could be used to separate the list items to "outrank" the commas in the list items.)
semicolons in lists

Semicolons to Separate List Items

Items in lists are usually separated with commas. For example:
  • I have been to Newcastle, Carlisle, and York.
The three list items for the sentence above are as follows:
  • Newcastle
  • Carlisle
  • York

When to Use Semicolons in a List

Let's imagine that our three list items looked like this:
  • Newcastle, Carlisle, and York in the North
  • Bristol, Exeter, and Portsmouth in the South
  • Cromer, Norwich, and Lincoln in the East
This time, the list items themselves contain commas. It is now appropriate to use semicolons as separators to outrank those commas. For example:
  • I have been to Newcastle, Carlisle, and York in the North; Bristol, Exeter, and Portsmouth in the South; and Cromer, Norwich, and Lincoln in the East.
Not all of the list items must contain commas to justify using semicolons as separators - only one does. Let's imagine our list looked like this:
  • Newcastle in the North
  • Bristol in the South
  • Cromer, Norwich, and Lincoln in the East
This time, only one of the list items contains commas, but that's enough to warrant using semicolons as the separators.
  • I have been to Newcastle in the North; Bristol in the South; and Cromer, Norwich, and Lincoln in the East.

More Examples of Semicolons in Lists

Here are some more examples:
  • Bread, milk, butter, cheese, lamb, beef, and onions
  • (There are no semicolons in this list because none of the list items contains its own comma.)
  • Bread, milk, butter, and cheese from the corner shop; lamb and beef from the market; and onions from your uncle's stall
  • You should choose ham, chicken, or char-grilled vegetable sandwiches; cups of tea, Bovril, or coffee (if you don't mind them lukewarm); or red wine (one of the few options that's drinkable when lukewarm).
  • (Notice how parentheses (brackets) can be used to add information within the list items.)
Here is another example that includes parentheses (brackets):
  • The guests of honour at the dinner will be Dr Alfred Peebles, the expedition leader; Mr Donald Keen, an experienced mountaineer (the latest addition to the expedition); Mrs Susan Honeywell, ornithologist from the RSPCB (Mr Keen's fiancée); and Capt. John Trimble, the base-camp commander.
Here is a video on using semicolons, which includes a section on using semicolons in lists:

The Oxford Comma

This next section is mostly about commas not semicolons, but it will affect how you punctuate your lists.

In the first example below, the comma after "butter" is called a serial comma or an Oxford comma. In the US, when there are more than two list items, your readers will expect a comma before the conjunction (in this case, "and") that precedes the last list item. In the UK, the tendency is not to use the Oxford comma. Be warned that Brits and Americans are inconsistent on this guidance. The bottom line is this: Choose whichever convention your company uses (or which you like best if you have that much freedom) and be consistent.
  • Bread, milk, butter, and cheese
  • (Notice the comma before "and." This is correct for those following the "Oxford comma" convention.)
  • Bread, milk, butter and cheese
  • (Here, there is no comma before "and." This is correct for those not following the "Oxford comma" convention.)
  • I have been to Newcastle in the North; Bristol in the South; and Cromer, Norwich, and Lincoln in the East.
  • (You must use an "Oxford Semicolon" in a list. It is not optional. It is not a matter of US or UK convention. In other words, when using semicolons as list separators, you must use a semicolon before the conjunction before your last list item.)
Read more about conjunctions and commas. Read more about the Oxford comma.

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See Also

Commas in lists Using semicolons before conjunctions (and, or, but, etc.) Using semicolons before transitional phrases (e.g. however) Using semicolons in lists Using semicolons to extend a sentence

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