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A serial comma is used to separate a list of items:

For breakfast, we had ham, eggs, and toast.

A serial semi-colon is used when items in the list have commas:

For breakfast, we had ham, eggs, and toast; orange juice, coffee, and milk; pancakes, waffles, and French toast; and a Pepto-Bismol chaser.

Both AP and Chicago style manuals are clear about the serial semi-colon use when the items in question have interrupter clauses:

He is survived by a son, John Smith, of Chicago; three daughters, Jane Smith, of Wichita, Kan., Mary Smith, of Denver, and Susan, of Boston; and a sister, Martha, of Omaha, Neb.

But I've come across a different construction recently, and I can't quite decide whether it takes a serial semi-colon or not.

The sentence runs something like this:

James T. Smith, vice president of widgets at WidgetCo, Mary Holmes, chief foo officer at FoobRUs, Sheldon DeVane, head of global placeholding at RiMelioraDies Inc., and Lisa Catera, chief lending officer at Plugitin Motors, will be speaking at tomorrow's conference.

Using serial semi-colons somehow trips my eye:

James T. Smith, vice president of widgets at WidgetCo.; Mary Holmes, chief foo officer at FoobRUs; Sheldon DeVane, head of global placeholding at RiMelioraDies Inc.; and Lisa Catera, chief lending officer at Plugitin Motors; will be speaking at tomorrow's conference.

The one which really bothers me is before "will be speaking." If the sequence were reversed, the semi-colons wouldn't bother me at all:

Speakers at tomorrow's conference include James T. Smith, vice president of widgets at WidgetCo.; Mary Holmes, chief foo officer at FoobRUs; Sheldon DeVane, head of global placeholding at RiMelioraDies Inc.; and Lisa Catera, chief lending officer at Plugitin Motors.

Given that we are using the Oxford or serial comma before the and (that part is not negotiable), for this particular construction — name, title at company — is it all commas, or the serial semi-colon? I'm leaning towards all commas, but I welcome arguments on either side.

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I think this belongs on EL&U and not here. Anyone agree? –  justkt Apr 12 '12 at 15:14
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Perhaps the rules are different for serial subjects and serial objects. The reason your first case (with semicolons) bothers me si that we're getting a list before we even know why. Flip it around (like in the "he is survived..." case) and it reads quite naturally with semicolons. –  Monica Cellio Apr 12 '12 at 15:34
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I'm leaning towards all commas as well. The serial semi-colons really mess with the flow in that construction. –  Aerovistae Apr 12 '12 at 17:17
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@Neil: Corporate email and corporate brochure text. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 12 '12 at 17:18
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Thanks, that helps put this into context. Have also added the email and marketing tags. –  Neil Fein Apr 12 '12 at 17:56
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4 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Use this one (without the semicolons):

James T. Smith, vice president of widgets at WidgetCo, Mary Holmes, chief foo officer at FoobRUs, Sheldon DeVane, head of global placeholding at RiMelioraDies Inc., and Lisa Catera, chief lending officer at Plugitin Motors, will be speaking at tomorrow's conference.

It is grammatical and understandable, even if not your ideal.

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(I'm answering this from a point-of-view of readability. If your corporate communications are subject to any internal style sheets or style guide such as AP or Chicago - since you have a policy on the serial comma, I'm inclined to think they are - please also consult those. If this does get migrated to English, you'll doubtless get all kinds of more technical answers there.)

As you obviously know, the serial comma exists to enhance readability. You've already outlined its use above, so I won't repeat that. The serial semicolon - even though I'm familiar with the semicolon's use in the way you describe, that's a new term for me!

Phrases with commas separated by semicolons like this, while technically correct, can be ponderous and difficult to parse. Many readers will skim this text, not read it. This is email/brochure copy, not a novel, so I would, rather, suggest formatting this text as a bulleted list for maximum utility. The reader will see it and be able to decode the format at a glance.

Speakers at tomorrow's conference include:

  • James T. Smith, vice president of widgets at WidgetCo.
  • Mary Holmes, chief foo officer at FoobRUs
  • Sheldon DeVane, head of global placeholding at RiMelioraDies Inc., and
  • Lisa Catera, chief lending officer at Plugitin Motors

However, sometimes a bulleted list isn't an option (for layout or other reasons). In that case, my next suggestion would be to rewrite the sentence like this:

Speakers at tomorrow's conference include WidgetCo's vice president James T. Smith, FoobRUs's chief foo officer Mary Holmes, RiMelioraDies Inc's head of global placeholding Sheldon DeVane, and Plugitin Motors's chief lending officer Lisa Catera.

I agree that the semicolon does interrupt the flow of the text. If you can, I'd replace the longer titles with "executive" or something similar. Shorter is better. (Perhaps you could include profiles of the speakers elsewhere in the document with more complete titles?)

Finally, if none of this is possible, I suggest you use your last attempt at this, the one starting with "Speakers at tomorrow's conference include". Putting this information at the end of the paragraph requires that readers read through a lot of names and titles to get to the point of the paragraph. Putting it at the beginning of the paragraph at least tells them what the paragraph is before they proceed, and the can decide to read or skim based on what information they need.

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The text in question is already in a bullet, so a bulleted list, while the most readable, isn't an option here. I agree that the "Speakers include" is the best alternative in the format given. But I still would like an agreement for this format. Sometimes corporate writer types won't let you rearrange sentences. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 12 '12 at 18:01
    
I understand! As in my last paragraph, putting "speakers include" at the beginning puts the paragraph in context. Seeing the list of names only ensures that people who don't know those names will skim even faster. What else do you need? –  Neil Fein Apr 12 '12 at 18:16
    
No, believe me, I agree that starting with "speakers include" is the better answer. But if the muckety-muck who wrote it won't let me do that, I need to know: based on the original sentence structure, commas or serial semi-colon? –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 12 '12 at 18:34
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My answer to either is "ugh". While the semicolon version is technically more correct, keep the pattern of each speaker consistent and you should be fine with just commas: Name, title company, name, title company, etc. It's a shame we no longer use "Mr" or "Ms" in these things; those titles are great indications that say, within a brick of text, "A person's name starts right here." –  Neil Fein Apr 13 '12 at 2:15
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Punctuation marks where invented to increase readability. So for God's sake, get rid of these semi-colons; my eyes are bleeding.

If you really need the differentiation which shall be achieved with the semi-colons (comma and a non-comma-punctuation-mark), I would suggest parentheses:

Speakers at tomorrow's conference include James T. Smith (vice president of widgets at WidgetCo.), Mary Holmes (chief foo officer at FoobRUs), Sheldon DeVane (head of global placeholding at RiMelioraDies Inc.) and Lisa Catera (chief lending officer at Plugitin Motors).

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::sigh:: I would love to do that. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 12 '12 at 23:13
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What "feels right" to me would be leaving your paragraph just as it is, except replacing the last semicolon with a comma:

James T. Smith, vice president of widgets at WidgetCo.; Mary Holmes, chief foo officer at FoobRUs; Sheldon DeVane, head of global placeholding at RiMelioraDies Inc.; and Lisa Catera, chief lending officer at Plugitin Motors, will be speaking at tomorrow's conference.

Having said that, I haven't formally studied English, and it's not even my native language, so this is just a gut feeling - how I'd write it.

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ooh, no, no, that will never work. I totally understand why you want to do that, but when you have a structure like this, you must keep the punctuation parallel throughout. You can't change boats midstream. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 18 '12 at 14:14
    
The reasons why that will never work are above my level of understanding of the style manuals (or my interest in them :) ), but in my defense, I'd argue that it matches the way you'd read it aloud. –  ggambett Jun 18 '12 at 19:54
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