Semicolons with Complex Lists

General thoughts on the semicolon:

For some reason unbeknownst to me, this is the punctuation mark that people love to hate. Some say it is too stuffy and formal for fiction; others say it shouldn’t be used even in nonfiction because readers don’t understand it.

But I love me a well-placed semicolon in fiction and nonfiction.

If you prefer not to use semicolons in your manuscript, I respect your choice. But I do find them useful.
Unlike commas and periods, semicolons aren’t required. You can easily rewrite a sentence to never need a semicolon, so essentially, they are stylistic choices.

Style Rule:

Use a semicolon to separate items in a list when the items contain commas or the items are long.  

Terms to Know:

Complex lists: lists containing internal commas or long items


 

Examples

My older brother, Craig; my younger brother, Clint; and my younger sister, Kayla, are coming to visit.

  • Since the items in the list contain commas, it could be hard to decipher when one item ends and another begins, so we use semicolons to separate them.

I need to edit this fiction novel, which is one of my first fiction projects; wash the dishes; and finish this blog.

  • If any item has internal commas, you can separate the items with semicolons. They don’t all need internal commas like the first example.
  • If only the last one has internal commas, you wouldn’t need semicolons to mark them. But once you use semicolons, use them for all. So notice how I have a semicolon between item two (wash the dishes) and item three (finish this blog) even though item two does not contain internal commas.

We must always take great care when handling the products; we must make sure the clients are happy and feel listened to; and we must be sure to communicate with the other departments.

  • I don’t always choose to use this stylistic semicolon, but when the items themselves are long, or a complete sentence as you see here, you can opt to separate them with semicolons.

 


Practice:

Note: Since semicolons are a stylistic choice, you don’t have to use semicolons in complex lists. Personally, I prefer them for sentences with internal commas as I think it makes things clearer, but I don’t feel they are necessary with long items. However, for practice purposes, put a semicolon anywhere it could make sense to do so. Do not put semicolons when the list is not complex.

  1. There are basically two ways to write: with a pen or pencil, which is inexpensive and easily accessible or by computer and printer, which is more expensive but quick and neat.
  2. While I have a lot to do at all times, I try to prioritize family, my job, cleaning, and then important down time, like watching TV and conversing with my husband.
  3. I like cows: they give us milk, which tastes good, they give us beef, which also tastes good, and they give us leather, which is used for shoes and coats.
  4. The Montana court has applied these definitions to cases with the following fact patterns: the driver was asleep and intoxicated, the driver was positioned behind the steering wheel, the vehicle’s motor was running, and the vehicle was parked.
  5. I wish she would just care about and enjoy earning stars, playing independently, and practicing for tumbling class.
  6. If you could change one thing about me as a teacher what would it be my weird personality, the fact that I tell stories during class, the fact that I ask you to read at home, or that I don’t explain information well enough?
  7. In my class, you can succeed if you just do the following turn in every assignment on time, even if it isn’t perfect or you didn’t quite do it correctly, ask questions when you don’t understand something, after you take notes, use them to help you complete bell work and homework, and apply the feedback I give you on future assignments.


 

Answers 

  1. There are basically two ways to write: with a pen or pencil, which is inexpensive and easily accessible; or by computer and printer, which is more expensive but quick and neat.
  2. While I have a lot to do at all times, I try to prioritize family, my job, cleaning, and then important down time, like watching TV and conversing with my husband. (Since only the last item has internal commas, no semicolon is needed.)
  3. I like cows: they give us milk, which tastes good; they give us beef, which also tastes good; and they give us leather, which is used for shoes and coats.
  4. The Montana court has applied these definitions to cases with the following fact patterns: the driver was asleep and intoxicated; the driver was positioned behind the steering wheel; the vehicle’s motor was running; and the vehicle was parked.
  5. I wish she would just care about and enjoy earning stars, playing independently, and practicing for tumbling class. (Not a complex list, so no semicolon is needed.)
  6. If you could change one thing about me as a teacher what would it be: my weird personality, that I tell stories during class, t that I ask you to read at home, or that I don’t explain information well enough? (Not a complex list, so no semicolon is needed.)
  7. In my class, you can succeed if you just do the following turn in every assignment on time, even if it isn’t perfect or you didn’t quite do it correctly; ask questions when you don’t understand something; after you take notes, use them to help you complete bell work and homework; and apply the feedback I give you on future assignments.

 

 

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