Semicolons in lists


 
It is usual to use commas to separate the items in a list. However, when the list items themselves contain commas, you can outrank those commas by using semicolons as separators for your list items.
 

Semicolons to Separate List Items

Items in lists are usually separated with commas (as in the first example below). However, if the list items themselves contain commas, then semicolons can be used as separators to outrank those commas.

Examples:

  • I have been to Newcastle, Carlisle, and York.
  • (commas used to separate the list items)
  • 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.
  • (semicolons used to separate the list items as the list items themselves contain commas)
  • 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).

semicolons used to separate lists items containing commas (correct)
(magazine article)
 
THE OXFORD COMMA

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

In the first example below, the comma after butter is called 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 very inconsistent on whether they sit inside or outside the "use an Oxford comma" camp. The bottom line is 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
  • (Correct for those following the "Oxford comma" convention)
  • Bread, milk, butter and cheese
  • (Correct for those not following the "Oxford comma" convention)
There is more on the Oxford comma here.
 
 
HIERARCHY OF PUNCTUATION 

In complex lists like the one below, semicolons are used to separate the list items because commas are used within the list items. You will also notice that brackets are being used to add information within the list items.

  • 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.
Initially, separate list items with commas in the normal way. However, if you then find that one of your list items contains a comma, you should "promote" the other commas to semicolons.

  • Bread, milk, butter, cheese, lamb, beef, and onions
  • Bread, milk, butter, and cheese from the corner shop; lamb and beef from the market; and onions from your uncle's
    stall
 



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