Honing Legal Writing Skills: Using Colons and Semicolons in Memos and Briefs

//Honing Legal Writing Skills: Using Colons and Semicolons in Memos and Briefs

This post was originally published on Attorney at Work.

By Josh Taylor

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 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.

By |August 20th, 2019|

About the Author:

For years, Josh has helped lawyers become more organized, productive, and profitable. A trained litigator, Josh came to Smokeball from a large east-coast law firm where his practice focused on franchise, insurance, marine, and general litigation. His work with Smokeball, and his continued passion for what he does each day, is driven by a desire to help lawyers and their staff do better in every way. Knowing well the stress and strain put on today’s legal professional, he regularly focuses on improving work and life in the law. He has traveled the country working with and learning from lawyers and their staff. Josh speaks regularly to bar associations about successful law firm practices and other legal topics. Recent notable engagements have been with the Chicago Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, and the Missouri Bar’s Solo and Small Firm Conference. In addition to his work at Smokeball, Josh serves on the Writing Resource Center staff at The John Marshall Law School. Besides legal technology, his research interests include judicial decision-making, jury decision-making and psychology, and legal writing. He has written and overseen research exploring causal effects of sex/gender on federal appellate court decision-making, and assisted with research for a forthcoming textbook on judicial decision-making. Additionally, Josh sits on the Board of Directors of Chicago-based Community Activism Law Alliance and on the Board of Directors of Chicago Fringe Opera Company. Josh holds his J.D., cum laude, from Washington University in St. Louis, where he served as a Senior Editor of the Wash. U. Law Review, held the prestigious Thompson Coburn Research Fellowship, served as Research Assistant to then-Vice-Dean (now Chancellor) Andrew D. Martin, and clerked at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and a B.M. in Music Performance with Honors Scholar distinction from the University of Connecticut, making him a Huskies basketball fan through and through. Follow Josh’s activity on LinkedIn, and keep up with new articles on the Smokeball Blog.

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