“How useless is the semicolon?”
A lawyer once asked me this question (emphasis in the original) and proceeded to offer three points in support. First, he said, a period can fulfill some of the semicolon’s functions, and second, a comma can fulfill the rest. Third, people abuse and confuse semicolons enough that we’d be better off without them. Well, I had to concede some of his points. But I was determined not to let “Mr. Useless,” as I’ll call him, get the better of me. No. I believe lawyers, as professional writers, have legitimate uses for the semicolon. Here are four.
1. Semicolons can separate independent clauses.
An independent clause has a subject and a verb and could be a sentence by itself. We can separate independent clauses with a period—as I had to concede to Mr. Useless.
We do not object to the amount of the fees. We ask that the amount not be disclosed to the public.
But a period between independent clauses says, “Full stop. New idea.” A semicolon between independent clauses says, “Pause; related idea.”
We do not object to the amount of the fees; we ask that the amount not be disclosed to the public.
So, Mr. Useless, the semicolon gives the professional writer another option—another tool for connecting ideas.
2. Semicolons separate phrases in a series when one or more of the phrases has internal commas.
This is a useful function more lawyers should apply. When you have three or more phrases in a series, you normally separate them with commas, which tells readers where each phrase ends. But when one of the phrases has commas within it, readers can get lost. In those cases, use the semicolon as a “super comma.” A basic example:
I have a sister in Princeton, New Jersey; a sister in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a brother in Great Falls, Montana.
Contract drafters should get to know this semicolon. The modifiers and qualifications that appear in contract language sometimes result in sentences like this:
All other details as to format, title, time, and manner of production, of price, publication and advertisement, and the number of, and distribution of, editorial review and free copies will be left to the discretion of the Publisher.
Got that? It’s better with semicolons acting like super commas:
All other details as to format, title, time, and manner of production; price, publication, and advertisement; and the number and distribution of editorial-review and free copies will be left to the Publisher’s discretion.
And that, Mr. Useless, is something a period or comma can’t do.
3. Semicolons separate the items in a numbered list.
This isn’t so much a rule as a convention in legal writing. When you write a simple, textual list or series, you separate the items with commas—as I again had to concede to Mr. Useless. For example:
When arguing a case to the jury, remember to maintain regular eye contact, keep your argument short, and close with a challenge.
But in legal writing, once you number the items, semicolons become conventional, even though commas would also be correct:
When arguing a case to the jury, remember three things: (1) maintain regular eye contact; (2) keep your argument short; and (3) close with a challenge.
Semicolons are even more conventional when you tabulate the numbered list.
When arguing a case to the jury, remember three things:
(1) maintain regular eye contact;
(2) keep your argument short; and
(3) close with a challenge.
Why quarrel with convention, Mr. U?
4. Semicolons separate the authorities in a string citation.
Simple enough, and it’s one we already knew: Moran v. Adler, 570 S.W.2d 883, 888 (Tex. 1978); Heien v. Crabtree, 369 S.W.2d 28, 30 (Tex. 1963).
And you can’t use periods or commas for that, can you, Mr. Useless?
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