Lawyers and Proper Semicolon Use

Came across this article and thought SLAW readers might find it useful. It was originally published in the December 2010 issue of Deadbeat, the Ontario Bar Association’s Trusts & Estates Section newsletter.

Spelling and Grammar Query
Susan J. Stamm*

Lawyers love long and complex sentences. Lawyers love lists. Lawyers love semicolons and colons. If we are to maintain our love of semicolons, we must use them properly.
Typical usage of semicolons by lawyers is in long complex sentences, or in lists. However, either way, two primary rules must be followed:

  1. You can use the semicolon to connect two independent clauses together into one sentence.
  2. You can use it as a super-comma.

There are also some optional uses.

To Connect Two Independent Clauses

Independent clauses are series of words that could stand alone as complete sentences (i.e., they have both a subject and a verb). When you have two otherwise complete sentences that you want to connect to form one long sentence, use a semicolon between them.

Example: Jane is a dependent child of the deceased; she is the applicant in these proceedings.
If you put a comma where that semicolon is, you will have committed a “comma splice,” which some consider a serious grammatical mistake.

There is, however, one exception that can cause you a problem. You don’t use a semicolon to connect two complete sentences if there’s a conjunction between the clauses (and, but, etc.). In that case, use a comma. I don’t know why. That is the rule.

Example: Jane is a dependent child of the deceased, and she is the applicant in these proceedings.

Adding that single word, the conjunction “and,” means that you must change that semicolon into a comma.

However, if the first sentence already has one or more commas in it, you do use the semi-colon.

Example: Harry, who is the spouse of the deceased, is the income beneficiary; and Mary, the deceased’s child from her first marriage, is the capital beneficiary.

Of course, you can also do separate sentences.

To Serve as a Super-comma

When you have a series of three or more items that normally would be separated by commas except that each individual item already has a comma in it, you use the semicolon between items.
Examples:

  • We visited Montreal, Quebec; Charlottetown, P.E.I.; and Vancouver, B.C.
  • The children were born on November 10, 2000; December 7, 2002; and October 31, 2003.
  • Her favourite athletes are Lance Armstrong, a cyclist; Wayne Gretzky, a hockey player; and Pete Sampras, a tennis player.

As in the examples above, citing places, dates, and people’s names with descriptions, are three very common situations where you’ll see the super-comma usage.

The Big List

In pleadings, lawyers commonly make lists of complete sentences. If that lists starts with a colon, then grammatically, the listed items should also be a part of the same sentence. Each of the clauses should be separated by semicolons under the two (or several) independent clauses and the super comma rules.

I have always been confused as to whether the sentences following the colon should be capitalized, and if so, whether each sentence should end with a period or a semicolon. On the one hand, the colon is not ending a sentence, so one would think that each sentence should not be capitalized, and should not end with a period. On the other hand, long sentences or multiple sentences look funny without capitalization, and it would be incorrect to have a capital letter after a semicolon. I looked into the issue on Wikipedia and learned that: “Some modern American style guides, including those published by the Associated Press and the Modern Language Association, prescribe capitalization where the colon is followed by an independent clause (i.e. a complete sentence). However, The Chicago Manual of Style requires capitalization only when the colon introduces two or more complete sentences.”

Accordingly, in the example below, it appears optional as to whether to capitalize the first letter of each list.

Example:
The plaintiff is entitled to support for the following reasons:

  1. she was married to the deceased for 14 years, and is 48 years old;
  2. she gave up her job at his request, so that he could excel in his career;
  3. she needs time to re-train in her previous area of expertise; and
  4. she is unable to support herself.

If any of the listed items contains more than one sentence, capitalization is required.

In my view, if you are capitalizing, you should use periods at the end of each sentence, rather than linking with semicolons and a conjunction, as in the example above.

If you would like to decide this one for yourself, I located this handy link on bullet point lists citing many different references: http://www.grammar-quizzes.com/punc-lists.html.

If you would like us to address common errors, please send an email to me at susan.stamm@ontario.ca.

*Susan. J. Stamm, Counsel, Office of the Children’s Lawyer

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Comments

  1. Then, of course, context helps: hence the joke about the little girl who, after visiting her grandfather’s grave with her father, asked him why there where 3 people buried in the grave.

    The tombstone read: “Here lies John Smith, a lawyer, and a good man.”

    Truth is that it is almost always the better choice, when writing about law, or writing law, to build structures with sentences rather than structures within sentences; however, some of us can’t resist.

    Especially in a profession where one may see “scholastic” used perjoratively and “overly analytical” paired with “correct”.