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Punctuation: Semicolons

With more stopping power than the comma and the ability to connect two independent clauses (and perhaps even leap tall buildings in a single bound), the semicolon packs a serious punch. Yet it’s one of the most underutilized punctuation marks among lawyers. Join the Greats who make judicious use of the semicolon!

Semicolon Uses:

  1. Joining Two Independent Clauses Without a Conjunction: The semicolon can be used to compare or contrast two related independent clauses for effect. Its use signals to the reader that there is a logical relationship between the clauses: “A criminal statute chills; prior restraint freezes.”
  2. Separating Items in a Complex List: When items within a list contain commas, use a semicolon to separate list items to enhance clarity: “She was born in Austin, Tx; was educated in Birmingham, Alabama; became a lawyer in Boston, Massachusetts; and started her own firm in Nashville, Tennessee.”
  3. Connecting Independent Clauses with a Conjunctive Adverb or Transitional Phrase: When two independent clauses are joined by a conjunctive adverb (e.g., however, instead, still, thus) or a transitional phrase, you should use a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase and a comma after it: “The judge considered the defendant’s alibi; however, he still ruled in favor of the prosecution.”

Note—Parallel Structure:

  • Clarity: To compare or contrast clauses with a semicolon in the clearest way for your reader, use parallel structure when possible.
    • Example #1: “In clean air areas, the federal government determines the maximum allowable increases of emission for certain pollutants; the states decide how to allocate the available increments among competing sources for economic development and growth.”
    • Example #2: “Arizona’s attempt to set its own policy for enforcement of federal immigration law is not cooperation; it is confrontation.