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.