So, semicolons should be used to separate items in complex lists. But what if only one item contains a comma and that item is placed at the end of the list? For example:

The body incorporated cheese and chocolate into its recommended daily diet, emphasized the importance of sugar, and encouraged people to eat apples, bananas, and celery.

Surely no ambiguity exists here. It seems unnecessary to me to use semicolons in such instances, but a colleague disagrees. Thoughts?

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    Possible duplicate of How does one correctly use a semicolon?
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 9:46
  • @Rathony It's not answered there. A major reference to the 'semicolon as super-comma' usage is given at Strange sentence structure.... But OP's question above asks for an answer to a particular grey area. Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 10:36
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    Not all people accept that 'semicolons should be used to separate items in complex lists'. Not being paid to toe any such lines, I ignore such critics, but editors and professors are the bosses in their domains. So 'unnecessary'/'permissible' is context-specific. Certainly nobody could correctly argue they're mandatory here, but, as Benjamin says in his answer, nobody should say they're incorrect, as they do aid the eye. Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 10:42

1 Answer 1


I agree with you, so I also wouldn't. We use semicolons in lists when we already have commas within a sentence for smaller separations and need the semicolon to show bigger separations, the operative word being need. In the sentence you've provided, there's no ambiguity, so there's no need. That said, I wouldn't fault someone for using semicolons in this sentence either, for your friend is right in so much as a valid case can be made for it, not one that I myself would employ, but also one that I would certainly not deny as I could see how some might say there is a need simply by having a smaller list exist within the larger list.


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    The sentence in question is constructed so solidly that the commas before two instances of "and" are themselves redundant. This sentence is unambiguously structured by the laudable parallelism of the verbs "incorporated," "emphasized" and "encouraged" more than by punctuation.
    – lauir
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 1:33
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    I see where you're coming from in regards to the solid construction and the unambiguous clarity elicited by each item in the larger list starting with a verb that relates back to the subject at the sentence's beginning. I would only agree, however, that the commas before the latter two ands is redundant if I didn't subscribe to the Oxford comma, but I do do, albeit with occasional vacillation. Regardless of my political leanings on grammar though, you do make a fair point, @human, so you get an uptick from me. Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 3:11

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