Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The workhorse semicolon – lists

with 2 comments

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If you want your writing to be crystal clear, the semicolon is an indispensable tool.

A sentence listing a number of different things will often need a colon and then several semicolons to ensure it reads clearly. For example:

We visited a number of places on our coach trip: Leeds, Yorkshire; Swindon, Wiltshire; London; the Isle of Wight; and Canterbury, Kent.

Just imagine what a geographical nightmare that sentence would be if only commas were used:

We visited a number of places on our coach trip: Leeds, Yorkshire, Swindon, Wiltshire, London, the Isle of Wight, and Canterbury, Kent.

Similarly, the following sentence uses a colon and semicolons to ensure clarity:

When preparing to move house, I had numerous jobs to do: liaising with my solicitor, who was based in London; liaising with our buyers, who were often out of the country; and sorting out all our bills and other financial matters.

The colon/semicolon construction for lists is also excellent when you want to set things out as clearly as possible on a page. For example:

When you visit our office, please bring with you:

  • your passport;
  • your birth certificate;
  • your driving licence;
  • your certificates of qualification; and
  • any other documents you think we will need.

Simple lists

Simple lists need only a colon followed by commas to separate the various things listed:

Peter had studied many different subjects: architecture, medicine, law and history.

When not to use a colon for lists

1. You should not use a colon after the word ‘including’. For example, the following sentence uses the colon incorrectly:

I have eaten several meals today, including: breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper. ×

You can see that the word ‘including’ does the work of the colon and so the colon isn’t needed.

2. You should not use a colon after any form of the verb ‘to be’ (‘are’, ’is’, ‘was’, or ‘were’). For example:

The members of the Beatles were: John, Paul, Ringo and George. ×

This should be:

The members of the Beatles were John, Paul, Ringo and George.

Similarly:

The cake’s ingredients are: eggs, flour, sugar and butter. ×

This should be:

The cake’s ingredients are eggs, flour, sugar and butter.

The beautiful semicolon

The semicolon and certain words

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2 Responses

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  1. You could think of a semicolon as a “full stop lite.” A period, however, is a full stoplight.

    Michael Farrell

    22/02/2010 at 12:33 am

    • I think I will have to create a ‘Wordwatch Best Useful Joke Award’. Thanks, Michael.

      Deborah

      22/02/2010 at 3:36 am


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