A Quiz About Semicolons in Run-In Lists

By Mark Nichol

Replacing a semicolon functioning as a weak period (one separating two independent clauses that are so closely related that dividing them into distinct sentences weakens their impact) with a comma is a grammatically indefensible error known as a comma splice. But various strategies for replacing a semicolon deployed as a strong comma (one separating items in a run-in list that are themselves lists) with actual commas are valid — and sometimes it’s necessary to correct improper use of semicolons.

Devise a solution for supplanting semicolons in the following sentences with commas, and compare your revisions to mine:

1. “Issues include workplace environments; hiring, training, and promotion practices; and management styles.”

1. The order of the items in this run-in list can be altered so that the complex item (a list element that is itself a list) trails the others; the structure of the final phrase in the following revision clearly identifies it as a single item parallel in structure to the first two without semicolons as signal markers between the three larger elements: “Issues include workplace environments, management styles, and hiring, training, and promotion practices.” (However, avoid this solution if list items deliberately organized chronologically or by some other scheme of logic would be put into disarray by the revision.)

2. “Issues include workplace environments; management styles; hiring, training, and promotion practices; and outsourcing and the use of part-time and contingent workers.”

This extended version of the previous example is easily modified as well, without altering the syntax of the revision shown above. Represent the simple first and second list items and the complex third item as a list, as in the example above, and insert the conjunctive phrase “as well as” before the next two items: “Issues include workplace environments, management styles, and hiring, training, and promotion practices, as well as outsourcing and the use of part-time and contingent workers.

3. “There can also be organ deformities, including heart defects; heart murmurs; genital malformations; and kidney and urinary defects.”

If it weren’t for the subordinate clause “including heart defects,” no semicolon would be necessary in this sentence. So, to avoid retaining the mostly excessive semicolons, find another way to include the additional information outside of a traditional in-line list. Retain the phrase as a parenthesized phrase, but, as in the previous example, employ “as well as” and separate the remaining list elements with commas: “There can also be organ deformities (including heart defects), as well as heart murmurs, genital malformations, and kidney and urinary defects.”

4. “Damage can be minimized by shielding the testes, ovaries, and/or uterus; surgically moving ovaries out of the irradiation field; or altering the treatment schedule.”

The presence of a verb at the head of each list item sufficiently distinguishes the items, so semicolons are unnecessary: “Damage can be minimized by shielding the testes, ovaries, and/or uterus, surgically moving ovaries out of the irradiation field, or altering the treatment schedule.” If the items in a semicolon-laden run-in list share a verb, try assigning a distinct verb to each item so that you can replace the semicolons with commas.

5. “The plant sucks in 785 million gallons of water a day; coal-fires it to temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to turn it into highly pressurized steam; then pipes the steam into a giant turbine that spin magnets inside wire coils to produce power.”

Semicolons are employed to distinguish list items that are complex, as defined above, not those that are wordy. Despite the length of the three items in this sentence’s list, semicolons are excessive; separate the items with commas: “The plant sucks in 785 million gallons of water a day, coal-fires it to temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to turn it into highly pressurized steam, and then pipes the steam into a giant turbine that spin magnets inside wire coils to produce power.”

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3 Responses to “A Quiz About Semicolons in Run-In Lists”

  • SocalGal

    I have to disagree with you on #3: “There can also be organ deformities (including heart defects), as well as heart murmurs, genital malformations, and kidney and urinary defects.”

    I think the original comma following deformities has thrown a spanner in the works here. In the original list “heart defects; heart murmurs; genital malformations; and kidney and urinary defects” are all organ deformities, so why set off heart defects? In addition, the inclusion of “as well as” implies that the “heart murmurs, genital malformations, and kidney and urinary defects” are not deformities.

    How about ““There can also be organ deformities such as heart, kidney, and urinary defects, as well as heart murmurs and genital malformations.”

  • Toby

    The phrase ‘as well as’ means that items preceding it have more importance than items following it.

    Sentences two and three should not use this phrase unless the intention is to change the meanings.

    If I had to use only commas for sentence two:

    ‘Issues include workplace environments, management styles, HR practices, and outsourcing and using part-time and contingent workers.’

    If, however, the exclusion of ‘hiring, training, and promotion practices’ changes the meaning too much, then keeping the semicolons is the only option.

    My change to sentence three:

    ‘There can also be organ deformities (including heart defects), heart murmurs, genital malformations, and kidney and urinary defects.’

  • Donna Boyle

    I’ve subscribed to Daily Writing Tips for some time. Now I’d like to download your promised “Basic English Grammar” text, but I can’t figure out how to do it.

    I tried to trick your website by “re-subscribing,” to no avail.

    Please advise.

    Thanks.
    Donna

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