CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

Creating lists

How you may write out a list is probably slightly different to the way I or someone else might write one. But who is correct? Well, there is no one way to write a list because lists are so commonly used and in such a broad range of contexts that there are lots of styles to choose from.

Prose

When writing stories, I tend to write out my lists in narrative prose format.

Sitting at the table were the club president, the secretary, the treasurer, the all-age coordinator and two all-age representatives.

Another way of expressing this information could be:

Sitting at the table were the following: the club president, the secretary, the treasurer, the all-age coordinator and two all-age representatives.

This sentence is fairly simple and requires the use of commas alone. However, if the sentence was more complex, I might require semicolons to better separate the items in the list.

The finals series will be held at the following venues: Blackman Park (lower) and Pottery Green, Lane Cove; Bicentennial Reserve, Willoughby; The Glade Oval, Wahroonga; Charles Bean and Primula, Lindfield; and Auluba, Turramurra.

Here, the use of the semicolons helps separate one item from the next, as I already need to use commas to separate the ground names from their suburbs.

A note on using semicolons in prose lists. While I do not use the Oxford or [serial comma], you may notice that I have used a semicolon before the conjunction and where you would typically find a serial comma. This is not a lapse on my part and, no, I’m not being slowly converted.

When using semicolons in lists, it is important to give equal weight to each and every item on that list by separating them from their fellows. This can only be done by separating the final item from the one before it—namely, by placing a semicolon before the and in the serial comma position. It also does away with any confusion, as leaving out the semicolon might suggest that the grounds Charles Bean and Primula are located in Lindfield and Auluba, suburbs that are located within Turramurra—which makes no sense.

Point-form

When lists come out of the narrative prose style and enter point form, there are a number of ways they can be written, depending on the context.

Casual

I require a partner with the following attributes—

  • intelligence
  • at least bilingual
  • preferably dark-haired
  • an appreciation for literature
  • humour

(Don’t get any funny ideas!) Here, the style is whatever the individual wishes. There is nothing wrong with using an em-dash rather than a colon or omitting punctuation at the end of each line. This is a casual list—it can look however you want it because, chances are, you’re not going to show this to people who are going to judge you!

Corporate

When it comes to companies, however, your higher-ups may need you to follow a certain style guide or you may wish to implement one yourself. While each company may have their own slight preference for one style or another, here are the most common I’ve seen.

Colon, lower case and commas.

Here is a list of items:

  • first thing,
  • second thing,
  • third thing,
  • fourth thing and
  • last thing.

Semicolon, lower case, commas and serial comma.

Here is a list of items;

  • first thing,
  • second thing,
  • third thing,
  • fourth thing, and
  • last thing.

Colon, lower case and semicolons.

Here is a list of items:

  • first thing;
  • second thing;
  • third thing;
  • fourth thing; and
  • last thing.

Colon, caps, commas and serial comma.

Here is a list of items:

  • First thing,
  • Second thing,
  • Third thing,
  • Fourth thing, and
  • Last thing.

Colon, caps and semicolons.

Here is a list of items:

  • First thing;
  • Second thing;
  • Third thing;
  • Fourth thing; and
  • Last thing.

And finally—colon, caps and full stops.

Here is a list of items:

  • First thing.
  • Second thing.
  • Third thing.
  • Fourth thing.
  • Last thing.

As I mentioned earlier, when using semicolons in lists, it is important to separate all of the items from their fellows and not to leave the final two items separated with only a conjunction. This rule should also be adhered to when using them in point-form lists, hence why I have placed my semicolons in the serial comma position before the and.

There are many different ways of displaying a list in the corporate world and I’m sure there are more than those I’ve shown. All of these ways are accepted, though some might be preferred above others, depending who you’re working for and their country of origin. The use of the serial comma, for example, may or may not be acceptable outside the US.

Now, go forth and write your lists!

(Wasn’t there an episode of the Sooty Show about lists? I think I will investigate.)

CS SealeyArchiveContact