Semi-Colons To Tidy Up Lists

Shani Raja
A free video tutorial from Shani Raja
Ex-Wall Street Journal editor
4.5 instructor rating • 8 courses • 398,822 students

Lecture description

How semi-colons can be used to make lists neater

Learn more from the full course

Punctuation Mastery

A Non-Technical Guide To Using Punctuation With Style

02:23:52 of on-demand video • Updated September 2020

  • Learn how to apply punctuation stylishly
  • Write with more confidence and flair
  • Spruce up your reports, essays, resumes, books, blogs and articles
English There's a lot of good uses--interesting uses for semicolons we we saw before in the comments section that you can use commas to separate items in a list, now semicolons can do the same thing but you tend to do it when the items in the list are a little bit more complex than just a simple phrase or word, so take this sentence the criminals stood in a row: one had a long dark beard and freckles another looked nervous one whose eyes shimmered, wore a red scarf, another was dressed in a suit with a silk tie, beautiful shiny, two more stood with their hands in their pockets, and were leaning against each other, and the last had on a straw hat that was tilted slightly to one side. Now, first thing I want you notice that this is a highly complex sentence this has a lot of a lot of items with with with sub-clauses within them as well so in such cases when you want to think about using semicolons to separate the different ideas that are in there so you know what kind of list you're dealing with because without it you can just get a very messy thing where people are going to you know their minds will be struggling to try and figure out you know which which things to focus on the commas don't do enough in that sentence to to delineate the items in the list, so you need some other device so that's why say the functional usage of the colon here is is ideal, so rather than have the sea of commas you get you would get this if you reorder that list using semicolons as well as commas, you'd get a lot more clarity for example, the criminal stood in a row: one had a long comment dark beard and freckles; another looked nervous; one whose eyes shimmered wore a red scarf; and that was dressed in a suit with a silk tie, beautifully shiny; two more stood with their hands in their pockets, and we're leaning against each other; and the last had on a straw hat that was tilted slightly to one side. Now you can see that ordered that way you are able to to know that the list is going through the different individuals and with certain characteristics associated with those individuals included but the commas to separate the characteristics the semicolons separate the individuals so that is a really interesting example of of how to use semicolons effectively in a sentence where the items on the list are complex rather than simple now the use of semicolons in that in that case isn't your only option and it may not even be your best option so you want to consider other possibilities to you know you could break up all of those into just sentences with full stops because that might actually make it easier to grasp everything and hold these ideas in your head without getting lost although the semicolons work quite well but i just want to show you alternatives. Your objective here is to tidy things up as much as possible so whether you saw with it with the commas that it was very untidy, with a semicolon see it was tidier, how about this with using a full stop, it might be even tidier. The criminal stood in a row. One had a long, dark beard and freckles. another look nervous. One, whose eyes shimmered, wore a red scarf, another was dressed in a suit with a silk tie comment beautiful shiny. Two more stood with their hands in their pockets comment, and we're leaning against each other. And the last had on a straw hat that was tilted slightly to one side. You know I actually prefer that sometimes because you don't have to kind of one that you can get this long this i'm not a fan of long list anyway so I'm just showing the different flexibility you have been expressing these ideas but hopefully can see that using commas in a kind of list format it is the least attractive of those options why because it's untidy. The hard breaks, you know you so you're using semicolons to indicate a kind of soft break or you could use the full stops to have hard breaks, you decide which works best for you. Full Stops actually give our mindI think a little bit more of a arrest and it just gives you less to kind of suspend-- in being suspended animation. That's an important concept in writing as well, try not too hold the reader in suspended animation with too long because their mind gets tired, the rhythm is different using the full stops compared with the semicolon so you want to look at the the use of semicolons within the context of the overall piece you know if it adds a bit of variety to the to the structure of the piece you might think that it's it sort of increases the elegance of it, so I want you to bear all those things in mind when considering the use of semicolons.