Semicolons in Lists

The Quick Answer
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.

Look at this list:
  • John
  • Simon
  • Toby
This list would be written like this: John, Simon, and Toby.

Now look at this list:
  • John, the baker
  • Simon, the policeman
  • Toby, the architect
This list would be written like this: John, the baker; Simon, the policeman; and Toby, the architect.

Note: Semicolons can be used to separate list items if one (or more) of the list items contains a comma.

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.
  • (In this example, commas have been 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.
  • (In this example, semicolons have been used to separate the list items because 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).
  • (In this example, semicolons have been used to separate the list items because the list items themselves contain commas. Also, brackets have been used to add information within the list items.)


Here, semicolons have been used to separate the lists items. As the list items contain commas, this is correct.
(magazine article)

Video on Using Semicolons

This video on using semicolons contains a section on using semicolons in lists:

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