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A basic list is punctuated like this:

The park has some bears, deers, and other animals.

(bears) (deers) (other animals)

When commas appear inside the items of a list, or when lists appear inside other lists, I often see semi-colons used, e.g.:

The park has: some bears; many deers, which are quite friendly, like to eat camp food, and watch visitors; and other animals, most of which live in the trees.

(bears) (deers (friendly) (like to eat) (watch visitors)) (other animals (live in trees))

When semi-colons appear inside the items of a list, or when lists appear inside lists of other lists, what punctuation can be used?

(bears) (deers (friendly) (like to eat (popcorn) (marshmallows) (chips)) (watch visitors)) (other animals (live in (tall trees) (short trees))

Update:

To clarify, I am not looking for a way to reword the sentences. I am looking for a way to punctuate the lists in these situations.

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1  
The plural of deer is deer –  Armen Ծիրունյան Apr 17 '12 at 11:46
    
Ususally, yes, but not always. The OED has three citations showing 'deers'. –  Barrie England Apr 17 '12 at 11:59
6  
My advice is to not do it. Three levels will be difficult for readers to understand, no matter how carefully you punctuate. –  KitFox Apr 17 '12 at 12:06
    
Any reason you can't just use a bullet or numbered list, which easily allows arbitrary levels of nesting and will be much easier to read? –  Cameron Apr 17 '12 at 18:42
    
{bears [cuddly] [furry] [like to eat visitors who feed deer (popcorn) (marshmallows) (chips) (other food that harms their digestion)]} {park rangers [helpful] [like to arrest visitors who feed deer (popcorn) (marshmallows) (chips) (other food that harms their digestion) unless they (leave) (stop <feeding animals inappropriate food> <littering>) (get eaten by bears)]} –  Amos M. Carpenter Apr 17 '12 at 23:56

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

While not always appropriate, bulleted lists naturally take care of the nesting problem. In addition, they help individualize the reading experience by allowing the reader to drill down into interesting areas while skipping others.

The park has:

  • bears
    • grizzlies, which number in the tens
      • Attacks are much rarer than the media would lead you to believe, but they do happen.
    • brown bears, which number in the thousands
  • many deer, which are quite friendly, like to eat camp food, and watch visitors
  • other animals, most of which live in the trees
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+1 The only way to make the three levels explicit is to make them explicit. –  woliveirajr Apr 18 '12 at 16:21

The first level punctuation is the comma, and second, the semicolon.

There is no standard/ official/ recommended/ conventional or specialized stylistic device that I know of at the third level.

So, either improvise, or avoid a third level of nesting in the interest of readability.

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The park has some bears and many deer. The deer are quite friendly, they like to eat camp food and watch visitors. The park also has lots of tree dwelling animals

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The park has some bears, many deer (which are quite friendly, like to eat camp food, and watch visitors) and other animals, most of which live in the trees.

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+1 because it doesn't look awkward in the least. Dashes could be an alternative to parentheses, but it looks nice as it is. –  Irene Apr 17 '12 at 12:06
3  
However, this doesn't do the third level of nesting which the OP asked about. –  Andrew Leach Apr 17 '12 at 14:17
1  
For a third level, one would use brackets ([ ]) within the parentheses. –  horatio Apr 17 '12 at 16:04
3  
When i read this, i find myself wondering how many deer live in the trees. –  cHao Apr 17 '12 at 19:27
1  
To avoid the deer in trees ambiguity, could do: "The park... visitors), and other animals (most of which live in the trees)." –  Lynn Apr 18 '12 at 2:17

You end up with something like

The park has: some bears; many deer, like roe deer which are quite friendly, like to eat camp food, and watch visitors — also fallow deer which are timid; and other animals, most of which live in the trees.

That would work, but it's awkward and although a dash seems to work, you can really only have one of those and it's still very easy to get lost in the lists. I would separate the detail into another sentence. You can add further detail like this quite easily.

The park has: some bears; many deer; and other animals, most of which live in the trees. The park's roe deer are quite friendly, like to eat camp food and watch visitors; the fallow deer are quite timid. Tree-dwelling animals include chimpanzees, which can be quite fierce; and macaques, which are rarely seen at all.

I'm not sure about the last semi-colon in that example. (Oh, and I usually use deer.)

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+1 Somehow I missed your answer, and basically duplicated it. –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 16:32

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