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Semicolons and complex lists

We use semicolons to punctuate a complex list, which is when list items contain commas. For example, “I visited Paris, France; Paris, Texas; and Paris, Illinois.” Paige explains. 

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hello grammarians. So if you've ever written a list of items or actions you know that we use commas to separate the elements of that list. Sometimes, though, our lists get a bit complicated and we have something called a complex list. And when that's the case instead of commas, we use semicolons. Let's look at an example. I've lived in quite a few places across the country, so if I want to list a few of them I can say "I've lived in New York, New York; "San Francisco, California; "and Knoxville, Tennessee." The items in this list are New York, New York; San Francisco, California; and Knoxville, Tennessee. You can see that they're separated with these semicolons. What makes this list complex is the fact that all of the items in it have commas in them. Cities and states need to be separated with commas, so if our list had commas in it as well, that would get kind of confusing. It would end up looking like "New York comma New York comma "San Francisco comma California comma "and Knoxville comma Tennessee." This has a pretty high chance of being misunderstood. It could look like I'm saying I lived in New York, a place called New York, San Francisco, just California in general, and Knoxville, Tennessee. That's just a lot of commas and a lot of chances for misinterpretation. So this is not what we want. Another sort of complex list is when we have a list inside of another list. This looks something like "I need to buy a textbook, "a workbook, and a dictionary for Spanish; "a calculator for math; and a map for geography." Because we have semicolons here separating elements of the list instead of commas, we can tell that the textbook, the workbook, and the dictionary are all for Spanish class. To get the same information across without using semicolons we'd have to say something like "I need to buy a textbook "for Spanish comma a workbook for Spanish comma "a dictionary for Spanish comma a calculator for math "comma and a map for geography." That sentence is way longer than it needs to be. We can condense it down to this much shorter sentence here by using semicolons in the place of the regular list commas. Because the semicolon is playing a special role in the case of the complex list, sometimes it's referred to as a super-comma. It's essentially acting as a comma, but removing some of the confusion that might occur if we had so many commas in one sentence. That's semicolons in complex lists. When we have a list inside of another list, or elements in a list that already have commas in them, we use semicolons to separate all the elements to make sure the sentence is extra clear. You can learn anything. Paige out.