Monday, April 18, 2011

Quick Tip: Using Semicolons for Complicated Lists

by Chuck Sebian-Lander

Last week we talked about one way to use semi-colons.  Now we're back to talk about another.

If you’re writing a sentence using series of long items or items that already include commas, avoid a mess of confusing punctuation by separating items with semicolons instead of commas.

As an example of the kind of confusion you don’t want, try to figure out how many places are actually listed in this sentence:
  • The contest winners were from California, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Ohio, Rochester, New York, Nevada, Iowa and San Diego, California.
(Image from here.)

You (and your reader) may not know that California is the name of a town in the state of Maryland, or that Nevada is the name of a town in Iowa. Even if you do, with only commas separating the items in this list, there’s no way to be sure when those names refer to the state or the town.

Now, see how much clearer those names become when using semicolons:
  • The contest winners were from California, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland, Ohio; Rochester, New York; Nevada, Iowa; and San Diego, California.

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