This question already has an answer here:

I am trying to list multiple items, but with a specific area they are located in.

The perfume had top notes of black currant, luscious strawberry, and sparkling cassis; mid-notes of ginger lily, bright peony, and pink jasmine; and dry notes of amber wood, white patchouli, and vanilla musk.

I don't know whether to use semicolons to separate the different areas or colons or even commas. Or, do I use the method used in the example with both?

(Note: Bold is the area location and italic is items in area.)

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Mitch, choster, Hellion, tchrist Nov 3 '15 at 2:05

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  • 2
    The mix of commas and semicolons in your example is a good expression of the structure you intend. Colons would be out of place here. – Lawrence Oct 31 '15 at 2:11

The rule of thumb is to separate items in a list with commas, unless at least one item in the list has a comma itself, in which case you should use semicolons in the main list to avoid confusion with the commas already in the list items. In any event, never use colons (:) to separate items in a list.

In other words, the example you provided in the question was exactly correct.


It depends on what you're trying to achieve, and also on how attentive the prospective readers are.

Normally, colons are used in simple lists, and the semicolon when the author wishes the reader to stop and take a breath after each item so as to allow it (the item) really to register in the reader's mind. As in:

black currant; (get it? it's black ... currant ... got it now? good! moving on) luscious strawberry; (get it? lusch... ious .... straaaaawberrrrry! ... okay? say it back to me! luschious strawberry, that's right! you got it! moving on); and sparkling cassis.

Et voila.

  • 1
    Et incohérent. I don't know of a single style guide that recommends colons in simple lists or semicolons to signal the reader when to breathe. The answer doesn't "depend" on what the OP is trying to achieve. Like everyone else considering how to use punctuation, she's trying to maximize clarity. And it doesn't matter how attentive readers are (since that's impossible to gauge). Your example associates your stream of consciousness about black currants with strawberries. Please consider not amusing yourself at the expense of others. – deadrat Oct 31 '15 at 2:49
  • How do you know that she's a she? Maybe she's a he. If in your opinion stretching the pause between words doesn't increase clarity, I defy you to prove it. The purpose of punctuation is to convey to the reader the inflection and duration of pauses the author has in mind. Inattentive readers have no use for punctuation. – Ricky Oct 31 '15 at 4:49
  • Quit playing the fool. The purpose of punctuation is to convey to the reader of linear text the tree-like structure of syntax. That's how punctuation brings clarity. There are standard guidelines for marking, and while they're not always congruent, none of them recommends anything like your hash. When the OP asks what method to use, she's not asking for your idiosyncratic brand of nonsense. Would you tell a student driver that red means go and green means stop? – deadrat Oct 31 '15 at 5:06

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