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I was reading a story and noticed a sentence structure I instinctively thought was wrong, yet the story has editors and thought it's time to learn something new. This is how it was written:

I learned some facts about him today like his favorite color; green, his favorite food; pizza, and what he wanted to be when he grew up; a teacher.

This usage of the semicolons seems off to me. Is it grammatically correct, or should they be colons, or even something else?

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  • The definition of 'grammar' adopted on ELU precludes the misuse of punctuation as being a grammatical error. // There is a school of opinion licensing the use of the semicolon as a 'super-comma' when such is needed in complex lists, say. However, your example gets things back to front. I'd use << I learned some facts about him today like his favorite color, green; his favorite food, pizza; and what he wanted to be when he grew up – a teacher. >> Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 15:18
  • Creative writing is allowed to be creative in many ways. The editors may have checked this with the author and acquiesced when the author replied 'leave it alone!' Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 15:36
  • @simonatrcl, creative misuse of punctuation may, arguably, be acceptable, and tolerated by editors, when it serves some literary purpose, but no such purpose is discernible in this case.
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 16:30
  • The context is a story. Without knowing which story it is (and then reading it) I certainly can't say it has no literary purpose. Also, in these days of cheap'n'easy self publishing there is guarantee that the editor is professional, or, indeed exists at all. (It probably doesn't have a literary purpose, though.) Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 16:34

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You're right. As written, it looks like it's saying:

I learned some facts about him today like

  • his favorite color;
  • green, his favorite food;
  • pizza, and what he wanted to be when he grew up;
  • a teacher.

The style guides I've looked at list two uses of a semicolon:

  • Separating multiple independent clauses, as a pause that's weaker than a period, but stronger than a comma.
  • Separating items in a list, when doing so with a comma would be confusing, because some of the items in the list contain commas.

Neither one of those is happening here; instead, the author has used a semicolon between a description (such as "his favorite color") and its corresponding identification ("green"). That's not one of the accepted uses of a semicolon.

One option would be to just switch the commas and semicolons:

I learned some facts about him today like his favorite color, green; his favorite food, pizza; and what he wanted to be when he grew up, a teacher.

But I'd probably use parentheses instead:

I learned some facts about him today like his favorite color (green), his favorite food (pizza), and what he wanted to be when he grew up (a teacher).

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