How to use semicolons in legal writing

Seemingly no profession makes quite so heavy use of the semicolon as the law. Semicolons make the complex sentences used in legal writing, particularly in contracts, slightly easier to parse.

When should you use a semicolon?

General grammar rules give three instances where a semicolon is appropriate:

  • Joining together two closely related clauses or sentences. The semicolon emphasizes their relatedness and prevents short, choppy sentences, for example: Plaintiff has demanded that Defendants pay Plaintiff his percentage and account for all of the credits sold; Defendants have refused to do so.
  • When using a transition such as however, therefore, or indeed, as in: Commissions for direct sales may also be payable to the Company; however, all such commissions can be made payable to the licensed salesperson(s) responsible for making a given sale. 
  • To separate a series (list) of complex items, especially when each item has a comma, such as: The foundation has offices in Portland, Oregon; Edinburgh, Scotland; and São Paulo, Brazil.

Semicolons in legal writing

The third usage, separating complex items in a series, is most common in legal writing. Semicolons are essential to avoiding confusion when used in a series in which each of the items has internal punctuation, such as commas. Consider this example:

One who commits fraud is subject to criminal liability if one knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact; makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry.

Without the semicolons, the items in this series run together, requiring extra effort to figure out where one starts and the other stops.

Semicolons are also helpful when you have a numbered or bulleted series. 

Costs borne by the Company include: i) legal and related expenses for further prosecution of patents and patent maintenance; ii) costs attendant to obtaining and maintaining requisite insurances, licenses, and appointments; iii) legal costs of executing patent license and related agreements; and iv) costs to engage independent bookkeeping and auditing services, and tax preparation costs.

The Oatmeal has a helpful explanation of semicolons involving bears and mayonnaise that I enthusiastically recommend.

If you have questions about using semicolons, or any other issues with legal writing, please contact us.