Lists are a popular way for people to stay organized. Perhaps you jot down grocery items or tasks you need to complete at work each day on a sticky note or your phone. But, when you need to communicate lists in writing and speech, you need to organize them in a manner to show importance and clarity to your audience.
Items aren’t the only thing you can make a list of either: ideas, claims, directions, and even complicated storylines can be integrated into a list format.
The biggest challenge I encounter when teaching English is how to punctuate list items properly. Let’s look at how to write a sentence with a list below and where and when to use punctuation, so your information is clear to your reader.
What is the Best Way to Write a List?
When jotting down some quick list items for your eyes only (such as a simple grocery list), you probably don’t care what your lists look like. But list format matters when you have an audience.
Listing things in a sentence can contain simple items, such as what you might pick up from a store. Or a list might illustrate complicated directions or ideas to help support a claim. No matter the content, organization and punctuation matter, as does the proper grammar for listing items.
There are two types of lists: vertical and horizontal. Both are very useful and communicate ideas effectively when used in the proper context.
When to Use Vertical Lists
Vertical, bulleted lists are great to use when you need to make a very visual point concerning your list items. This style of organization is best used for emails and memos that are formal but brief and very specific in the information being shared. It also works great to help break larger sentences into something quick and easy to view.
- Please bring the following to our meeting this Wednesday afternoon:
- A copy of your licensure certification
- Your available transportation dates
- A list of all students attending
- An overview of your trip itinerary
- The objectives of the lesson associated with the trip
It is also good for providing formal yet understandable directions.
- You’ll need the following ingredients for the bread-making class. Be sure to have them delivered by Tuesday afternoon for all 12 students:
- 4 lbs of flour
- 1 dozen eggs
- 1 can each of baking soda and baking powder
- 12 packets of yeast
- 1 block of sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 lbs fresh jalapeno peppers
Vertical lists are also the preference for a quick, informal item listing for personal use.
When to Use Horizontal Lists
Horizontal lists are best used when writing out more complicated ideas in paragraph form. They work well for quick lists and are also the preference for writing dialog. These can be used in both formal and informal writing, especially when sharing complicated ideas or thoughts.
- My frustration with the students had to do with their complete apathy toward the material, their disregard for wasted time, and their inability to realize how their actions were affecting their future.
- I need you to run to the store to pick up a few items: milk, butter, eggs, and bread.
- On our road trip, we passed through Fort Worth, Texas, where we spent a day at the Stockyards; Orlando, Florida, to visit my brother and his family; and Garden City, South Carolina, because I have a condo there.
How to Punctuate a List in a Sentence
Knowing the correct punctuation for list items is very important to avoid running your items together and creating a jumble of words. Lists not only use commas to separate items but also use colons and semicolons when the occasion arises.
Comma List Rules
If you list three or more words, prepositional phrases, or clauses in a series, you need to use a comma to separate them. The comma placed between the final two items is called an Oxford (or serial) comma. Some people feel this is an unnecessary punctuation mark, but its use helps provide a visual separation to avoid confusion.
Use Commas to Separate Three or More Words
Commas separate words in a simple list of items to ensure your reader that they are separate items and not the same thing.
- After work, I need to run to the grocery, laundry, and daycare.
Use Commas to Separate Three or More Prepositional Phrases
Prepositional phrases add detail to your sentence’s main topic. Commas help separate these details to create understandable information.
- Mykayla won the scholarship due to her detailed essay writing, her intrinsic motivation, and her interview preparation.
Use Commas to Separate Three or More Clauses
Clauses are detailed and consist of multiple words. A comma creates organization and structure, so your reader understands the information you share.
- The high school marching band was plagued by many disappointments over the weekend when the bus they were traveling on got a flat tire, the competition they were performing in rained out after the first round, and the trip home took twice as long due to the rain.
When Not to Use a Comma
If your list items are already separated by coordinating conjunctions or you list pairs of items, you don’t have to use commas between them.
- I went to the farm store for chicken and horse and dog food.
- I love to make bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy, and toast and jelly for breakfast.
Colon List Rules
Colons follow an independent clause to connect the information that follows with the main topic. When a colon introduces a list, what precedes it must be a complete sentence, even if the list is vertical.
Use a Colon to Introduce a List Horizontally
Horizontal lists are lists that are integrated into the sentence following the colon placement.
- The school drill went flawlessly: everyone was organized, students stayed quiet, and the meeting place made it easy to take a head count.
Use a Colon to Introduce a List Vertically
If you use a colon to introduce a vertical list, you still need to place it after a complete sentence. Vertical lists work well for simple lists, or to list fragments when creating horizontal lists may create confusing or long sentences.
- I love stopping by my favorite local coffee house for breakfast items:
- A choice of hot or iced coffee
- Homemade breakfast pastries
- Sandwiches made to order
Use a Colon to List Abbreviations
You can also use colons to list abbreviations.
- MI: Michigan
- SYP: Student Youth Program
When NOT to Use a Colon
Colons should not be used after headings, titles, or captions to introduce information. There are many other options you can use to indicate formatting.
- Font size
- Bold font
- Color changes
Semicolon List Rules
Semicolons are used to conjoin two complete sentences related to one another. It can also replace a comma and coordinating conjunction pair to avoid the repetitive use of and.
When used to separate list items, semicolons help create a division between elements that already include a comma. This can be as simple as city and state combinations or work to help clarify complex lists that contain descriptive instruction.
Use a Semicolon to List Locations
Semicolons are used to punctuate complex lists that include cities, states, and countries. Since commas are necessary to properly punctuate locations, a semicolon is needed if more than one is used in a series.
- I’m using my vacation days this year to road trip through Moab, Utah; San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon; and a stop to ski in Banff, Alberta, Canada before heading back home.
Use a Semicolon to Divide Events
Descriptive events that contain a comma should be separated by a semicolon if they are listed within a sentence.
- Our trip to the Kennedy Space Center included a walking tour of the shuttle Atlantis, which is on display in the memorial building; a break in the Planet Play Zone, where children are immersed in space exploration; and an astronaut training experience, a real-life encounter with astronaut training scenarios.
Use a Semicolon for Descriptive Instructions
If your sentence includes detailed, punctured instructions, you will need to separate these steps using a semicolon.
- Before our field trip on Friday, I need you all to complete the following information in advance: one, your physical health release; two, your physics worksheet on forces; three, your confirmed group members complete with contact information.
Use a Semicolon to Provide Detail
When including descriptive elements in your list items, you should include semicolons if the descriptions are already punctuated.
- The luncheon included ham, turkey, and vegetable finger sandwiches with delicate cheeses; fresh melons, strawberries, and grapes with a sweet dipping sauce; and a choice of decadent fruit sorbets, tartlets, or hand-dipped chocolates for dessert.
When NOT to Use a Semicolon
Do not use a semicolon to replace a comma unless the list item that follows already includes comma punctuation. Also, do not use a semicolon to replace a colon. Semicolons do not introduce a list.
Including lists in your writing to create descriptions and detail is an excellent way to create varied sentence structure. Although you don’t want to depend upon it too heavily, there are many ways to punctuate your items when you begin to include phrases and clauses within your list organization.