SC Lawyer, July 2003, #6. The Scrivener July 2003 Semicolons.

AuthorBy Scott Mo\xEFse

South Carolina Lawyer


SC Lawyer, July 2003, #6.

The Scrivener July 2003 Semicolons

South Carolina LawyerJuly 2003The Scrivener July 2003 SemicolonsBy Scott MoïseSemicolons act as separators, much as commas do. Although semicolons may seem inconsequential at first glance, a court's analysis of semicolons can often be a decisive factor in the outcome of a case. E.g., Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Sarata, 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 8017 (4th Cir. Apr. 21, 2002) (affirming Judge Matthew Perry and remarking that plaintiff insurance company employed semicolons "incorrectly and superfluously" in a "non-standard and confusing" manner so as to add to the ambiguity of an insurance policy); Zurich Ins. Co. v. Lobach, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11709 at *8-9 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 5, 1997) (finding that semicolons serve to separate clauses into distinct paragraphs that must be read as separate categories); United States v. Waters, 158 F.3d 933, 937 (6th Cir. 1998) (noting that the title of a statute regarding the authority of magistrate judges contained a semicolon which served to separate that authority into two distinct areas).

Frequently, legal writers use semicolons and commas interchangeably, which is incorrect and can cause unexpected and unwanted consequences. The distinction between the use of semicolons and commas was made clear when one attorney's attempt at statutory construction was dubbed "The Strange Case of the Missing Semi-colons." Yount v. State, 636 A.2d 50, 51 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1993). In response to the appellant's strained construction of an otherwise clear statute, the court pointed out that "the legislative word processor, of course, had available to it the semi-colon and knew how to call it forth when needed." Id.

Semicolons are used primarily in two situations: (1) between independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor) and (2) in a series.

  1. Semicolons are used between independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction.

    "Independent clause" is a technical term for complete sentence that can stand alone.

    "Coordinating conjunction" is simply a connecting word that joins two elements of equal rank. The coordinating conjunctions are and, but, for, or, and nor. These conjunctions can connect two independent clauses, along with a comma.

    When deciding whether to use...

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