by Harriet Castor
Last week’s writing tip looked at semi-colons, and how they are used to join two whole sentences together (when the meaning of those two sentences is closely related).
You can also use semi-colons to separate items in a list. Here’s how this works.
With many lists you don’t need semi-colons, since commas are perfectly adequate for separating the items. Here’s an example:
There were three bears: a brown one, a red one and a yellow one.
However, there are occasions when commas don’t provide enough clarity. This can sometimes be because each item on the list is described by a long phrase that itself includes commas.
There were three bears: a brown one with a spotty hat, a pink bowtie and a purple nose; a red one with striped trousers, a green waistcoat and an orange scarf; and a yellow one in flowery pyjamas.
Even when the list isn’t so descriptive, there’s sometimes still a danger that it could be misread without semi-colons. Here’s an example:
The seminars will take place in several different venues: Plimpton Hall, Puddletown, Sunnydale Centre, Thistlethwaite, and Dewlap Lodge, Doddington.
How many different venues are listed above? The use of semi-colons makes it absolutely clear:
The seminars will take place in several different venues: Plimpton Hall, Puddletown; Sunnydale Centre, Thistlethwaite; and Dewlap Lodge, Doddington.
Finally, here’s an example of semi-colons used in a list by book reviewer Nicholas Lezard, in his review of Iain Banks’s last novel (The Guardian, March 18th, 2014):
[I]n place even in his first novel were plenty of the elements that recurred throughout the next three decades, and are all present here: an unbalanced but charismatic father figure; a long-anticipated meeting of interested parties at the isolated locus of the narrative; a secret to be uncovered.
(You can read the full review here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/18/quarry-iain-banks-review-nicholas-lezard )
For a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills, email Harriet.Castor@uwe.ac.uk.
I’m at Frenchay on Wednesdays and St Matthias on Thursdays.