Writing tip of the week

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.



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