Semicolons in Lists

by Craig Shrives
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 the 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 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
  • 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.

Video on Using Semicolons

Here is a video on using semicolons, which includes a section on using semicolons in lists:

The Oxford Comma

This section 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 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
  • (This is correct for those following the "Oxford comma" convention.)
  • Bread, milk, butter and cheese
  • (This is correct for those not following the "Oxford comma" convention.)
Read more about conjunctions and commas.
Read more about the Oxford comma.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

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