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I found a previous answer on here that said "Normally, a semicolon would be used in a construction with three or more list items, not just two."

But I'm curious about this because a list of two items could be confusing. Imagine I'm visiting my brother and his wife. If I said, "I'm visiting John, my brother, and his wife, Lisa," I could read that as visiting three people (John, my brother, and my brother's wife). So why wouldn't "I'm visiting John, my brother; and his wife, Lisa" be appropriate here? I realize the whole thing could be restructured to avoid this problem, but I've encountered some instances where it is difficult to restructure the whole thing and do not see why using a semicolon to separate two items where internal commas could create confusion would be wrong.

  • Perhaps the word Normally should be in all caps. The semicolon can start a list of two or more. If only one then it is merely setting apart the enumerated item. It messes things up if you drop it in the middle of list items you are already listing. I am visiting relatives; John, my brother and his wife. It just sets apart the list of even one item being spoken of. – Elliot Jul 4 at 3:57
  • It would probably be more normal to put the first appositive in brackets and omit all commas. Or you could use ' ... my brother John, ...'. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 3 at 19:07
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It's true that semicolons are normally only used with three or more list items.

However, semicolons are also used to avoid confusion when at least one of the list items already contains a comma.

From The Chicago Manual of Style, 6.60 [paywall]:

When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity …

      The membership of the international commission was as follows: France, 4; Germany, 5; Great Britain, 1; Italy, 3; United States, 7.


Typically, style is used as a consistent way of preventing ambiguity. If a particular situation calls for something to go against convention, but doing so enhances comprehension, most style guides would allow for its use.

For instance, take the example sentence from Chicago and reduce it to only two list items:

The membership of the international commission was as follows: France, 4; Germany, 5.

The use of the semicolon still aids in comprehension, even though there are only two list items.


Ultimately, it's a matter of personal choice or of what a particular style guide you follow says—assuming it is adamant about not breaking a style rule in any situation.

The following is the sentence in the question:

? I'm visiting John, my brother; and his wife, Lisa

This is not as clear-cut an example of semicolon use as that from Chicago; however, even if it looks unusual, it's still not possible to confuse the intended meaning of the sentence.

You need to ask yourself if the slight strangeness of the construction is counterbalanced by its comprehension or not.


There are several other ways of punctuating (or rephrasing) the sentence that would be just as comprehensible without the use of a semicolon:

  • I'm visiting my brother—John—and his wife, Lisa.
  • I'm visiting my brother (John) and his wife (Lisa).
  • I'm visiting (1) my brother, John and (2) his wife, Lisa.
  • I'm visiting my brother and his wife—John and Lisa, respectively.

In short, the decision to use a semicolon, even if goes against common style guidance, is up to you. I would be hard-pressed, however, to come up with any sentence which could not be restructured or punctuated differently in order to convey the same meaning.

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  • Excellent and thorough answer, thank you! – DEs1 Jul 4 at 17:52

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