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Proper Semicolon Usage for Lawyers

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

When it comes to punctuation, few marks are as dreaded or confused as the semicolon. It's more than comma, but less than period.

Not surprisingly, even lawyers stumble over how and when to use them. Fortunately, if you're one of those lawyers, here you can read about when you should be using semicolons.

Generally, semicolons are used to connect two or more related, but independent, clauses in the same sentence. For example:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers; pickled peppers that just so happened to be in Queen Grimhilde's pantry.

And while semicolons can really class up your writing (as the above example's dramatic-effect-semicolon illustrates), they can also help you write more clearly. In legal writing, clarity is critical as meaning matters, and failing to properly separate clauses of sentence can lead to garbled meanings, vagueness, and confusion. For lawyers, the most important semicolon usage includes lists.

Semicolons and Lists

Semicolons are perhaps best used in legal writing to connect independent clauses in a list, such as elements of statute or analytical framework; case citations; or when a list has one or more items that includes an "and," or an "or." This applies both when the list is in an outline (or numbered) format on the page, and when written in paragraph form. Though, if you are using line breaks to separate your list, then the semicolon's effect is not as pronounced.

Using semicolons when ordering lists written out in paragraph form provides a more structured experience for the reader, as the semicolons reduce the risk of confusion that can be common with commas. For example, in the sentence that starts the above paragraph, if commas were used, a reader might unwittingly read it and think that a semicolon is used to separate elements of case citations.

The Power of Punctuation

There should be little doubt in any lawyer's mind that punctuation matters. After all, cases get decided based on Oxford commas, or the lack thereof.

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