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Nov 12 2009   2:09PM GMT

Semicolons and complex lists

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is correct?
An MRP system should satisfy three objectives: ensuring that materials and products are available for production and delivery; maintaining the lowest possible level of ___________ planning manufacturing activities, delivery schedules and purchasing activities.
a. inventory and
b. inventory; and

Answer: b

Explanation:
In a list of complex items, the semicolon helps clarity by clearly identifying the separate items in the list — that’s why it’s used instead of a comma between the items, as well as why it’s used along with the conjunction and before the last item. The general rule is to use a semicolon to separate list items if one of your items already contains a comma and to use one before the conjunction if the items are complex.

Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty offers more information about the uses of semicolons.

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3  Comments on this Post

 
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  • Stevegs
    First, let me state that I did know the answer before reading yours. However, I do have a problem about 'and': the sentence as presented, has a list of three distinct units, each separated by a semicolon with no 'and' before the last list member. The third list member has a list of three items, using a comma between the first and second member without any punctuation before the third member (as is the current convention - old school is to place a comma before the 'and'). Question: Where's the 'and' for the semicolon list? I do not accept the argument that the single 'and' at the end of the list spans both the comma-delimited and the semicolon-delimited list. I find your answer incomplete because of the failure to provide the 'and' for the semicolon list. Personally, I find the sentence as presented extremely awkward because the sub-list destroys any sense of a parallel structure - the three parts of the semicolon list are NOT equally built.
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  • 1rabella
    Steve, Thanks for your comment. The “and” for the semicolon list is the one in the answer choices. The list items are: * ensuring that materials and products are available for production and delivery; * maintaining the lowest possible level of inventory; AND * planning manufacturing activities, delivery schedules and purchasing activities. The sentence came from a website explaining MRP. I usually select the sentences for these based on documents I find online, so that they have a bearing on the kinds of things people are writing and the related questions they might have.
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  • tanyabailey88
    Is it correct to use a comma after the "and" in a complex list? For e.g.:  ....butter; and, eggs, which can be substituted. To me, it's easier to read  this way.
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