The three punctuation marks used most often in documents are periods, commas, and semicolons. Like periods and commas, semicolons are essential. Unfortunately, some commentators have dismissed semicolons as pompous and unnecessary. See, e.g., Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English 44 (2019) (quoting Kurt Vonnegut). These commentators are wrong; semicolons impose order within sentences. Let’s consider the two circumstances in which their use is particularly important.
Avoiding Run-on Sentences
When two independent clauses, each of which could stand alone as a sentence, are so closely related that they should be joined as one sentence, they must be joined by a semicolon:
Obeying stay-at-home orders is hard; Netflix and ice cream can help.
If these clauses are joined by but or and, a comma rather than a semicolon is proper. See, e.g., William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 5-6 (4th ed. 2000). But the connection of the two clauses is stronger with the semicolon.
We create run-on sentences when we use a comma followed by provided that to introduce an independent clause expressing an exception, elaboration, or example. Sister Mary Particular correctly taught me that whenever you graft an independent clause onto a sentence with an adverb like however, therefore, thus, or for example, that clause must be preceded by a semicolon. See Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 777 (2d ed. 1995). Using a comma followed by provided that violates that rule. Bryan Garner decries the use of provided that because it “may create an exception, a limitation, a condition, or a mere addition.” Id. at 710. Provided that may mean either if, followed by a condition, or however, followed by an exception. To avoid the ambiguity, use if for conditions and preface exceptions either by a comma followed by but or, more elegantly, by a semicolon followed by however:
During government-ordered shut-in periods, all residents must remain in their apartments; however, they may visit grocery stores to buy ice cream.
In my documents, I introduce exceptions using a semicolon followed by however, but often opposing counsel wants to replace my correct semicolon with a comma followed by provided, however. It’s hard for lawyers to get away from the provided that habit, but we should all give it a try—with the help of semicolons.
Most documents include lists, such as recitals and obligations. These lists can be complex. Use commas to separate the items in the list when they are single items or simple clauses. See Marie A. Moore, Practical Punctuation (Part 3): The Comma Law, 29 Prob. & Prop. 3 (May/June 2013). When the items in the list include internal commas (regardless of whether those listed items could be stand-alone sentences), use semicolons to separate the listed statements. See Dreyer, supra, at 43. For example:
The cities that have adopted shut-in orders include New York City, New York; San Francisco, California; and New Orleans, Louisiana.
A huge semicolon mistake is including complete sentences, separated by periods, in a series separated by semicolons. Recitals are frequent offenders:
Whereas, the City has enacted orders to protect stupid people from themselves. We must comply with them; and . . .
Lists of obligations, remedies, or other contract provisions preceded by a colon can also be culprits:
If Residents violate these rules:
1. The Building will terminate their cable. It will also urge neighbors to have loud ZOOM calls; and
2. The Building will cut off their ice cream supply.
That’s just wrong (and I don’t mean cutting off the cable and ice cream). Lists of statements joined by semicolons should not contain internal periods—period!
To avoid this error, either rephrase to eliminate the internal periods or make each item on the list a sentence or even a paragraph, each beginning on its own line. You don’t need a semicolon if the formatting makes the listing clear. Assist the reader by numbering the listed items or introducing them with first, second, etc. See Garner, supra, at 391.
Use those poor, misunderstood semicolons; they’re essential for separating clauses and enumerating clearly. A semicolon “asserts a link where the reader might not necessarily see one while establishing the fragility of that link at the same time.” Lauren Oyler, The Case for Semicolons, N.Y. Times, Feb. 9, 2021.