Ever wonder why people sometimes use semicolons when writing lists in sentences? Today we’re going to explain why.
Semicolon use # 2: Use semicolons to separate items in a list when the items contain internal commas
In our summary post on commas, we mentioned that we typically use commas to separate items in lists. For example, if we wanted to tell someone all of the things that we need to do before boarding a flight tomorrow, we might write something like this:
I need to go to the bank, pack my bags, and check in online.
Sometimes, however, commas aren’t enough. For example, take a look at what would happen if we relied only on commas to separate the items in this sentence:
We went to London, Ontario, Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
As you may have realized, this sentence tells the reader that we went to three Canadian cities: London, Sydney, and Vancouver. However, the sentence also contains information about the province that each city is located in. Because we typically separate city names and their corresponding province names with a comma, the sentence above contains commas not only between the items but also within each city–province item. This makes it difficult to figure out where the divisions are between the items. What can we do to solve this problem? We can use a different punctuation mark to separate the items. Instead of separating the items with commas, we can separate them with semicolons, just like this:
We went to London, Ontario; Sydney, Nova Scotia; and Vancouver, British Columbia.
It’s now much easier to tell which pieces of information are part of the same item and which ones are part of different items. That is, it’s easy to tell where the divisions are between items. Whenever you’re writing a list and the items in the list already contain commas, use a semicolon to separate the items.
Note that you would use a semicolon to separate items in a list even if just one item contains commas:
I need to go to the bank, pharmacy, and grocery store; pack my bags; and check in online.
Have any lingering questions about how to use semicolons in lists? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.
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How to use semicolons in lists