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Are semicolons required (rather than commas) in a list after a colon when the list is not bulleted? I was told that it was a rule, but I can find no authoritative prescriptive source.

Consider the example sentence below.

The following are unclear: whether a change in Rule C is regarded as a violation; whether it is possible to add conditions to rule D in Category 5 when submitting a report to the Committee; and whether Rule G and Rule H satisfy the professional requirements.

If there is no potentially confusing internal punctuation in the list elements, and if parallel construction (e.g., whether . . . whether . . . whether) shows clear demarcation, are commas not sufficient?

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Commas are sufficient in your example sentence because there's no potentially confusing punctuation in the list of whether clauses. –  user21497 Jan 9 '13 at 8:17
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The usage of both semicolons and commas is OK, if you have a list of simple sentences like in your question.

  • There were four people who wanted to go on a trip: Jack because he was bored, Jill because she was tired of her monotonous life, John Doe because he wanted to get a flower for Jane Doe and Jane Doe because she was hoping for some surprise.

  • There were four people who wanted to go on a trip: Jack because he was bored; Jill because she was tired of her monotonous life; John Doe because he wanted to get a flower for Jane Doe; and Jane Doe because she was hoping for some surprise.

I tend to use commas for words, although you may or may not use semicolons.

  • I have great friends: Jack, Jill, Jane and John.
  • I have great friends: Jack; Jill; Jane and John.

The use of semicolons here looks a little weird. Semicolons, although, are advised if you have a list of compound or complex sentences:

Life is very good! Today, in this magazine, we will feature the lives of four people: Jack, a simple man who enjoys his work and personal life; Jill, who loves going up the nearby hill and falls every time she goes there; and finally John and Jane Doe, a couple ready to get married in the near future.

Believe me, you do not want to use only commas in that sentence.

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Normally you use commas, although semicolons are allowed. You definitely use semicolons as super-commas when you normally use commas within the clauses for other purposes.

The following are unclear: whether a change in Rule C is regarded as a violation, whether it is possible to add conditions to rule D in Category 5 when submitting a report to the Committee, and whether Rule G and Rule H satisfy the professional requirements.

but

The following are unclear: whether a change in Rule C is regarded as a violation, as per comment 1; whether it is possible to add conditions to rule D in Category 5 when submitting a report to the Committee, comment 3; and whether Rule G and Rule H satisfy the professional requirements, mentioned in comment 17.

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The problem with asking for a prescriptive rule is that different prescribers prescribe different things. If you want to write the sentence that way, it will be easier for the reader if the listed items are indeed shown as bullet points, with a semi-colon after each. If you want to write it without bullets, then neither commas nor semicolons are really satisfactory, and you might want to consider changing the structure completely, perhaps on these lines:

There are a number of points that are unclear. Is a change in Rule C regarded as a violation? Is it possible to add conditions to rule D in Category 5 when submitting a report to the Committee? Do Rule G and Rule H satisfy the professional requirements?

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