Making a list. Checking it twice (for colons, commas, and semicolons).

Lesson: Using colons, commas, and semicolons in lists

It’s December. ‘Tis the season for list making. Kids are making lists of presents they want to receive. Cooking aficionados are making lists of ingredients they need to bake their amazing cookies. Santa’s making lists of who will receive lumps of coal. My point is: there are lists. And if you want to learn how to format your lists correctly, then this is the post for you.

Using colons and commas to make a list
When you’re writing a sentence that contains a list, you may want to use a colon before you introduce the list’s items. In many cases, this will make the sentence more concise and make the items of the list more apparent.

Take a look at this sentence:

Roxy had three choices for lunch, which were pizza, grubs, and salamander.

You could shorten this sentence by placing a colon before your list (and using commas to separate the items). That sentence would look like this:

Roxy had three choices for lunch: pizza, grubs, and salamander.

With the help of a colon, you can also combine sentences. Here’s the original:

Ralph thought about two things. One thing he thought about was pizza. The other thing he thought about was algebra.

Here’s the new sentence:

Ralph thought about two things: pizza and algebra.

(Notice here that commas don’t separate these list items because there are only two.)

So short. So simple. Thank you, colon and comma.

Using colons and semicolons to make a list
If your list is complex, you may want to use semicolons as dividers to make each individual item easier to read. Or, as The Chicago Manual of Style says in section 6.58, “When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity.”

Here’s an example of a complex list that uses both a colon and semicolons:

The items on Martina’s Christmas list are as follows: one red, fuzzy sweater; two super-violent, awesome video games; one old, beaten-up copy of Fahrenheit 451; and six adorable, little hamsters.

The items on Martina’s list are complex because, as you’ll notice, the items contain a lot of detail and punctuation (in this case, commas) within the singular items. If we only used commas to separate the items, instead of semicolons, it would be more difficult to see where one item ends and the next one begins.

Summing up
If your list is simple, use a colon to introduce the list and commas to separate the items.

Example: Last night Regina saw: a mouse, a wizard, and a tomato.

If your list is complex, use a colon to introduce the list and semicolons to separate the items.

Example: Last night Regina saw: an old, ugly mouse; a scary-looking, grumpy wizard; and a moldy, stinky tomato.

There you go. I hope this post helps make your holiday list making more pleasurable.

About Erin Roof

Editor for hire. Dictionary collector. Part-time cat lady. Word nerd blogging at grammarpartyblog.com
This entry was posted in copy editing, punctuation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Making a list. Checking it twice (for colons, commas, and semicolons).

  1. one old, beaten-up copy of Fahrenheit 451… That sounds like the beginning of a poem to me.

  2. Erin Roof says:

    Maybe you should write it.

    • I’m not much of a poet but here goes:

      one old, beaten-up copy of Fahrenheit 451
      that was the first token
      handed to him his first summer at geek camp

      the second was a note
      carefully tucked into the book
      which looked so innocent
      to everyone else
      but to him it simmered and alluded to
      things that made him blush

      the third was a snap shot
      from a small town in spain
      where he would never go
      acting as book mark

      Once again, as every year
      He stands over the bridge
      And just like every year before
      He decides to keep the book
      One more year

  3. Apparently I’m quite good at fooling people. Lots of deep dark secrets and so forth. I keep them locked in a little box hidden in the back of an abandoned cathedral or something else equally dramatic. Maybe a pirate ship. Pirates are big on the Internet, yes? Okay, a pirate ship then.

  4. alexandrastephanie says:

    Thank you for your expertise, Erin! Someone had asked me for advice on the correct way to use the colon and I knew right where to go to find the answer.

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