How to Write Lists
Writing lists can sometimes be tricky. There are some rules about writing lists that are not common sense, and there are others that are quite flexible. This article answers common questions about writing lists.
1) Should I use a colon before a list?
You should use a colon to introduce a list when the words that come before the list make a full sentence,1 as in the following example:
“There are six different pieces used to play chess: the pawn, the knight, the bishop, the rook, the queen, and the king.”
Otherwise, you should not use a colon to start a list. Using a colon to introduce a list of items within a sentence is incorrect.
Incorrect: “The pieces used to play chess are: the pawn, the knight, the bishop, the rook, the queen, and the king.”
Correct: “The pieces used to play chess are the pawn, the knight, the bishop, the rook, the queen, and the king.”
However, regardless of how the sentence is worded, a colon should be used if the list is written as bullet points or in some similar fashion. To illustrate, the colon is mandatory in the following example:
“The pieces used to play chess are:
– The pawn
– The knight
– The bishop
– The rook
– The queen
– The king”
2) When do I need to use semi-colons to separate items in a list?
You should use semi-colons instead of commas to separate terms in a list when the terms themselves contain commas. An example is given below:
“There are six different pieces used to play chess: the pawn, which is worth one point; the knight, which is worth three points; the bishop, which is also worth three points; the rook, which is worth five points; the queen, which is worth nine points; and the king, which is not given a point value.”
The semi-colons ensure that the reader knows when a new term is being introduced.
3) Do I need to put a comma before the last item in a list?
Whether to use such a comma — known as an Oxford comma — is almost always optional. There will be times when the list doesn’t read quite right when this comma is left out, though. (See the next question for an example.)
4) How do I write a list when one or more of the terms in the list contains the word and?
Because the word and is used to separate the last item of a list from the rest, writers sometimes get confused when writing a list which has items containing the word and.
Imagine you want to rewrite the following list as part of a normal paragraph:
“The sandwich options will be:
– Roast beef and cheddar cheese
– Ham and Swiss cheese
– Peanut butter and jelly”
Such a list would be written just as any other list would be, with commas between the terms denoted by each bullet point. That is, the commas should separate the sandwiches and not the individual ingredients. It is important to include the Oxford comma in such a list to ensure the reader knows that the last two sandwiches are not a single, very weird sandwich.
“The sandwich options will be: roast beef and cheddar cheese, ham and Swiss cheese, and peanut butter and jelly.”
If you would like to learn more about writing lists, I have written an article about fixing list-containing sentences that lack parallelism.
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Tips blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.
1You could also use a dash, or you could enclose the list in parenthesis.