There are three punctuation marks involved in making a list in a sentence: the comma, colon, and semicolon. Which you use depends on how complex your list is.
If you are writing a simple list, you can just insert a comma after each item. Like this:
Today I ate cookies, cookies, and more cookies.
Colon and Comma
You can also 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.
Colon and Semicolon
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.
If your list is simple, use commas to separate the items.
Example: Last night Regina saw a mouse, a wizard, and a tomato.
If your list is simple, you can also 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.
Erin Servais is a book editor and author coach focusing on women author-entrepreneurs. To learn more about how she can help you reach your publishing goals, check out her website, Dot and Dash, or email her at Erin@dotanddashllc.com.
15 thoughts on “Making a list. Checking it twice (for colons, commas, and semicolons).”
one old, beaten-up copy of Fahrenheit 451… That sounds like the beginning of a poem to me.
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
Wow. Thanks so much for writing that. Not much of a poet? You could have fooled me.
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.
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.
I wish I knew what on earth Regina was involved in to see a mouse, a wizard, and a tomato in the same night. Seriously though, thanks for the helpful hints.
Thank you so much!
Thank you so much, Erin!
didn’t mean to write that twice…
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Awesome blog you have herre
Oh my goodness thank you so much for this post it has saved my paper’s life! I’ve never had to make a complex list into along sentence and I knew something wasn’t right but I wasn’t sure where to go with it!