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Legal Writing Reminders

Using Colons and Semicolons in Memos and Briefs

For reminder No. 3, a couple of punctuation marks that can trip up lawyers.

By Josh Taylor

Attorney at Work’s series on legal writing skills continues with punctuation at center stage. Here’s the skinny on when to use a colon or semicolon.

colons and semicolons

Welcome back to the #LegalWritingReminders series! In this second installment, punctuation takes center stage. Punctuation is perhaps the most variant grammatical rule system among active writers. We need to look only to the vigorous arguments surrounding Oxford commas (also known as serial commas). Beliefs around grammatical “rules” border on the religious.

Today we’re focusing on two areas of punctuation that often trip lawyers up when brief or memo writing: colons and semicolons.

Colons: How Not to Go Astray

In legal writing, colons are typically used to introduce list items. After all, law is a series of elemental lists. Where lawyers often go astray with colons, however, is failing to make the introductory clause a complete independent clause. In other words, what precedes a colon must read as a full sentence if it were on its own.

  • Incorrect: The elements of robbery are: (1) the taking of the property of another (2) from his or her person or in their presence (3) by violence, intimidation or threat (4) with the intent to deprive them of it permanently.

There are a couple of fixes when your list structure matches the flawed example above. First, allow the sentence to read as one, and save your colon for another day. Second, simply transform the introductory clause into a complete independent one.

  • Correct: Robbery is comprised of (1) the taking of the property of another (2) from his or her person or in their presence (3) by violence, intimidation or threat (4) with the intent to deprive them of it permanently.
  • Correct: The following elements constitute robbery: (1) the taking of the property of another (2) from his or her person or in their presence (3) by violence, intimidation or threat (4) with the intent to deprive them of it permanently.

Lastly, a colon can operate very similarly to our next punctuation, the semicolon, and be placed between two independent clauses where the second explains or elaborates on the first.

  • Example: Doctors agree that regular check-ups result in longer life: Three separate studies confirm that regularly seeing a physician increased life expectancy by four to seven years.

The Semicolon’s Main Tasks

As noted above, a semicolon denotes a relationship between two adjacent independent clauses (i.e., ones that can stand alone as separate sentences). Semicolons typically replace coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Thus, a semicolon can be properly replaced by a period in this context, but nuance can be lost without one.

  • Example: Several team members went out for drinks after winning the big game; a few others went home to rest up for the next round.

Similarly, a semicolon can separate two independent clauses where the second clause begins with a transitional expression (e.g., consequently, nevertheless, thus).

  • Example: Nothing the speaker said made sense to the class; nevertheless, the students sat quietly and attentively.

When thinking about this next semicolon use, a superhero comes to mind. Indeed, the semicolon acts as something of a super comma (cue superhero music and voiceover) where list items require sublists.

  • Example: Mark’s new house has a first floor with stately columns, a sitting room, and a library; a second floor with six bedrooms, a billiards room, and five bathrooms; and a spacious balcony overlooking the pool, the ocean, and the perfectly manicured gardens.

Once we as lawyers master our colon and semicolon use, we may be so lucky as to move into a house like Mark’s.

You Might Also Like …

Learn Writing Reminders No. 1 and No. 2 in “Honing Legal Writing Skills: Passive Voice and Parentheticals.” 

And be sure to read “Get to the Point!” by Teddy Snyder for quick tips on clear communications.

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Josh Taylor Josh Taylor

Josh Taylor is a practicing litigator based in Connecticut and the head of legal content strategy at Tracers, an investigative data search software company for law firms. Previously, Josh served on the staff of The John Marshall Law School’s Writing Resource Center and as head of legal content and strategic partnerships at a nationwide legal software company.  He has spoken around the country on practice management and legal writing topics. Josh sits on the boards of directors of Beyond Legal Aid and the Chicago Fringe Opera Company. He also writes the Legal Writing Reminders series for Attorney at Work.

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