comma or semicolon in list: chemicals; tools; powders


Learned Spanish (DO) first; know English (US) better
Okay, I have this sentence:

The walls were lined with chemicals, tools, powders, and possibly, human appendages.

Is that sentence correct as is, or would it be better served by a semi-colon?

The walls were lined with chemicals; tools; powders; and possibly, human appendages.

The "and possibly" is what got me thinking because it clearly adds punctuation to the last item on the list, and I learned that you use a super comma when you have internal punctuation in a list.

What do you guys think?
  • I'd add the semi-colon to set off "human appendages" - for more dramatic effect.

    The walls were lined with chemicals, tools, powders; and possibly, human appendages.

    But I believe your first instance isn't wrong. The second comes across cluttered with the overuse of the semi-colon.
    I would punctual one of two ways (and remember that commas are often a personal choice). And the first is my preference:
    The walls were lined with chemicals, tools, powders and, possibly, human appendages.
    The walls were lined with chemicals, tools, powders, and, possibly, human appendages.
    Okay, so I probably shouldn't use semi-colons... I do see the clutter they create, but if it is technically right to use them, I'd like to.

    And Copyright, if it turns out semi-colons are not necessary, I like your second option. :)
    Semicolons are not necessary in my opinion. And for the reader, if commas are a pause, semicolons are a pothole.
    Like Copyright said, semi-colons are "potholes", really heavy pauses.

    As a rule of thumb, use colons, semi-colons and dashes sparingly. So when they are used, the desired 'oomph' is there.
    I agree with Copyright's suggestions, although I advocate the serial comma and would go for the second. Another possibility to avoid too many commas:
    The walls were lined with chemicals, tools, and powders—and possibly human appendages.

    As for semicolons: depends on context. If it's a detective story, semicolons would indeed be potholes. If it's a legal report, they would help prevent any kind of ambiguity.
    Semi-colons aren't necessary when? Ever, or in the case of lists with internal punctuation?

    Semicolons aren't necessary here -- but I would never say never. :)

    Let's just talk about lists: if the items in your list contain necessary commas, then you pretty much have to use semicolons to separate the individual items, like this:

    There are many wonderful places to holiday in Asia: Bali, with its unique culture, welcoming people and luxury resorts; Hong Kong, with world-class shopping, delicious food and, of course, Hong Kong Disneyland for the kids; and Kyoto, a beautiful city that is home to 1600 temples, many of which you'll find in surprising, out-of-the-way places.

    You simply can't escape semicolons in that sort of construction and your reader will thank you for them. But in shorter lists that are readily understood, the first time a reader hits a semicolon, he or she may think that you're separating two clauses instead of defining a list... so there will be a moment's mental stumble while adapting to what the semicolon is really there for.
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    You know what Copyright, thanks for making me remember that grammar is, actually, kinda, up to the writer, because you're right, commas are preferred for my sentence. As a writer, one has to ignore the rules sometimes and go with what's best.

    Thanks :)