When writing a list in one continuous piece of writing rather than a list of bullet points, there are a few rules to consider. The first rule is the punctuation you are going to use to introduce the list, and the second is the punctuation in the list itself. There are also a few guidelines as to whether or not to include a comma before the last point, as I did in the above sentence, but generally it appears that this is up to the reader.
You only need to use a comma after the introduction when it’s a short list of items. This is opposed to a colon or dash:
E.g. When you are at the shops, please can you get me some eggs, milk, and tea towels?
Above, I have also used a comma before ‘and’ because it wasn’t my intention to link the eggs with the tea towels.
You can use a colon (:) after the introduction when it’s a long lists and then put a comma between each item on the list:
E.g. I need to buy the following items at lunchtime: cards, wrapping paper, scissors, pens, cellotape, balloons, and a present.
You will notice that I added a comma before the last point ‘and a present’ so that it reads better i.e. it separates the balloons from the present. If it had been balloons and a pump, you may consider leaving the comma out.
Semicolons can also be used to separate the items in a list, if the items in the list are long sentences:
E.g. I need to buy the following items at lunchtime: a selection of birthday cards; wrapping paper with happy birthday on it; stainless steel scissors; a gold and silver pen; sellotape in a dispenser; pink and white balloons, and Sam’s present.
My thoughts: I’ve often wondered if I write lists correctly in my sentences, but having read about them in the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation by ‘John Seely’, I don’t think I was too far out. I was even able to put this into practise in some emails at work today. I’m also a bit more confident now about putting a comma before the word ‘and’. Although I have done this in the past, I was never really sure what the rules were.
Oh, and I bought a new book today – ‘Collins Improve you Punctuation’, by Graham King. I haven’t had a chance to study this yet, but will refer to it in future blogs.
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John Seely The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, USA