How to Write a List Correctly: Colons, Commas, and Semicolons

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 3, 2023

If you want to write a list but aren’t sure about the correct punctuation, look no further. In this article, you’ll learn how to appropriately use colons, commas, and semicolons when making lists.

In short:

  • Colons are sometimes used to introduce a list.
  • Commas separate items in a simple list.
  • Semicolons are used to separate items in a complex list.

How to Write a List Correctly

For writers, list-making is a handy tool to illustrate your ideas or to make your text more readable by breaking it up.

There are two types of lists: horizontal and vertical. Each type uses colons, commas, and/or semicolons.

A Punctuation Review

Before we dig in, let’s review what colons, commas, and semicolons are.

Colons look like this:


Commas look like this:


Semicolons look like this:


Horizontal Lists

Horizontal lists help you give examples or specify your argument by having ideas laid out next to each other.

Colons, commas, and semicolons come in handy when it comes to laying out your list and making it look neat. But what are the standard guidelines?

Using Colons in a List

First of all, the colon. It can be used to introduce lists but isn’t necessary. Your list can be a simple continuation of your sentence.

For instance:

The available colors are blue, gray, and white.

You should use a colon, though, if you use an apposition (e.g., “the following”).

The available colors are the following: blue, gray, and white.

You should also use a colon to introduce a list if semicolons separate the items in the list:

The available colors are: blue and gray; black and white; and red and pink.

Later I’ll explain whether to choose commas or semicolons to separate the items in your list.

Using Commas in a List

Use commas to separate items in a simple list - that is, if each item comprises a single word.

The following sentence illustrates this:

For lunch, you can have a toastie, salad, or fries.

Using Semicolons in a List

You can use semicolons to separate items in complex lists - that is, if each item comprises several words or contains the conjunction ‘and.’

If you use semicolons to separate the items, you must also introduce the list with a colon.

I’ll show you what I mean.

For lunch, you can have: a cheese and ham toastie; a caesar salad; or french fries with ketchup.

Because each separate item contains several words, and sometimes the word ‘and’ it could be confusing to the reader if they were only separated with commas.

It’s by no means necessary to do this and perfectly acceptable to use commas still, but it’s just a way to make your list easier on the eye.

Vertical Lists

Vertical lists are a great way to make items stand out or to break up your text by making it more visually appealing. They are usually made with bullet points, numbers, or letters.

A common problem with vertical lists is deciding which punctuation to use at the end of each item.

Here are some easy-to-follow guidelines:

  • Put a comma at the end if the items are unpunctuated single words or phrases.
  • Use a semicolon at the end if the items are punctuated but aren’t complete sentences.
  • If the items are complete sentences, use a full stop at the end as you usually would when writing a regular sentence.

The last item in your bulleted list needs a full stop. You can look at the bulleted list above as an example of a vertical list that uses full sentences.

Here’s an example of a vertical list with unpunctuated single words or phrases:

The top three things we look for in a Masters Student candidate are

  • education,
  • motivation,
  • grades.

And here’s an example of a vertical list with punctuated clauses or phrases:

The plan for this evening is to go:

To introduce a list, use a colon if the items are complete sentences that stand alone. If it’s just a clause or phrase, use no punctuation, and imagine the bulleted list as being a continuation of the sentence.

Top Tip! If you’re writing some kind of brochure or creative document, you can take more freedom with the punctuation since your goal is to make it look as appealing and readable as possible.

Concluding Thoughts on How to Write a List Correctly

I hope this article has helped you feel more confident about using punctuation when writing lists. Let’s summarize what we’ve learned:

  • Use commas to separate items in a simple list.
  • Use semicolons to separate items in a complex list.
  • Use colons to introduce a list after an apposition or semicolons to separate the list items.

If you found this article helpful, check out our blog archive on navigating complex grammar rules.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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