Semicolons When Lists Get Complicated
Keep your complex series clear and organized with a semicolon.
The Short Story
Use semicolons in sentences that have complicated lists.
Ex: Yesterday I reflected on Pride and Prejudice, the movie; Emma, the novel; and Sips and Sensibility, the podcast.
We use lists all the time. But sometimes those lists get complicated. That’s when the semicolon comes in.
Let’s start with an example of a simple list:
Ex: The dragonfly, caterpillars, and moths met with the butterfly queen.
This is pretty simple. To separate the items in our list, we just add commas. Now, let’s make this example a bit more challenging by adding information about each bug.
Ex: The yellow dragonfly, two brightly colored caterpillars, and a pair of wise moths met with the butterfly queen.
Even though we have added information about each bug, commas still work because it is clear what added information is linked to which bug.
But what happens when we have to add more information that require their own commas?
Let’s start with another simple example to figure this out:
Ex: Susan, Clarence, and Luli all attended the seminar.
This sentence is pretty straightforward. It lists three people. But let’s add information about these people that has its own commas.
Ex: Susan, a new student, Clarence, a professor of philosophy, and Luli, a librarian of twenty-two years all attended the seminar.
This sentence is confusing. Is Susan or Clarence the new student? It’s not clear because we are using commas in the information about each person and commas to separate each person. Because of this, it is pretty hard to tell which information goes with each person. See—it’s complicated.
To clarify this, we just need to add some semicolons. We will let the commas separate the added information from the person. Then we will use the semicolons to separate each person and his or her additional information from the other people listed.
Ex: Susan, a new student; Clarence, a professor of philosophy; and Luli, a librarian of twenty-two years all attended the seminar.
In this example we can easily tell that Susan is the student, Clarence is the professor, and Luli is the librarian. We wouldn’t have been able to clarify that without using semicolons.
So, to water this down, we add semicolons when our list gets complicated.
Complicated lists include the following:
The items listed have additional information.
The additional information has internal punctuation of its own.
“I looked at the contents of my purse: chapsticks, 3; pens, 5; notebooks, 2.”
In this example, we use semicolons to help readers distinguish the amount that goes with each item.
“Thank you for taking my survey that is required for this class; that will help me with my grade, which is needing improvement; and that, coincidentally, I find to be very interesting.”
Here, not all the items listed have additional information, but because some do, we use the semicolon for clarification. We should also note that the items listed here aren’t actually tangible items. But they are still a list that defines the survey, so it still counts.
“Our capability to communicate to large groups across long distances has allowed us to find and gather new resources; discover and share techniques for hunting, gathering, farming, and building; develop societies and rules by which we can govern those societies; construct cities; and build rockets that allow us to leave the land in which all other creatures seem destined to live forever.”
(Gray, Paxton. Communication Technology. Orem, UT: MyEducator, 2021.)
This is another example of a list that doesn’t include actual items. Instead, it lists actions. This sentence is also very complex with a lot of internal punctuation in each action. Thank goodness for semicolons!