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My editor replaced the commas with semicolons in my sentence below. If a list has internal punctuation, the semicolon is preferred to break up the elements, but is it necessary if the punctuation is only in the final section of the list, separated by a conjunction as I did? Using semicolons throughout seems odd because there is a clause with commas several words later.

Mr. Jones prepared a feast which included broccoli soup, stuffed mushrooms, grilled asparagus, prosciutto and melon, seared duck breast, bacon-wrapped scallops, Cornish game hens, pork belly, rabbit stew, and a cake topped with fondant, candies, edible flowers, walnuts, almonds, and berries.

Is it correct to use commas throughout, or should those that appear prior to the word "and" be semicolons?

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  • I guess your editor was thinking that when some of the items in the list contain their own commas, you should use semicolons for the list itself. – GEdgar Apr 8 '16 at 15:27
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    Speaking as an editor, I would never include semicolons here. Each of the elements in the list is short enough that the meaning is quite clear with the commas. Semicolons would just weigh this sentence down, in my opinion. Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Here is a lesson in writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” I don't go that far, but, with all due respect, I think your editor is wrong here. – user66965 Apr 8 '16 at 15:38
  • For a sensible and clear example of the usage of the semicolon as a 'super-comma', see Lyes' answer at the (admittedly duplicate) Proper comma usage for multiple city/country pairs Here, there is a complication A, B, C, D&E, F, G, H, I, J, and a cake topped with K, L, M ...I'd start again with a fragment: And a cake topped with a, b, .... You're pushing coordination and listing punctuation too far. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 8 '16 at 16:02
  • Personally, in a long list like that, I would opt for brackets (similar to how brackets are used for sub-ingredients on most nutrition labels). – Othya Apr 8 '16 at 18:08
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    I suppose you could make a case for semicolons with a different menu, one that included peanut butter and jelly, green eggs and ham, and egg, onion and bacon sandwiches interspersed within the list. I think periods (and a few extra nouns and verbs to go with them) would be a good solution. – Rob_Ster Apr 8 '16 at 18:56
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It's a stylistic choice. I was taught to use semicolons for complicated lists, especially when some elements of the list contain commas. In your case, the list is clear either way.

This reference from Bristol University spells it out: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/page_05.htm

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  • right. I'm trying to argue 1) that list is not a complicated list. Before we get to " and a cake" the sentence is perfectly understandable using commas to separate each item on the menu. And the only elements of the list that contain commas are set off by a conjunction. and 2) although semicolons may be useful in similar situations, they are not mandated when a list contains internal punctuation. – Vidro3 Apr 8 '16 at 19:53
  • That is correct. The conjunction 'and' signals the last item of the main list, so the secondary list is clearly nested within that last item. No semicolons needed to clarify the nesting. – AmI Apr 8 '16 at 20:52

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