3 Cases of Semicolon Overkill

By Mark Nichol

Semicolons serve a useful function in helping distinguish between elements of complex sentences, but lengthy sentences with long phrases do not necessarily require the support semicolons provide. These three sentences demonstrate unnecessary application of the semicolon as a comma on steroids.

1. Electrical shock may cause serious burns; injuries to internal organs, such as your heart; and even death.

Semicolons should generally be employed as strong commas when elements of a list themselves include lists or otherwise include commas of their own. Here, however, the sentence construction is clear and simple; “such as your heart” is obviously part of the list element pertaining to injuries to internal organs (and doesn’t necessarily need to be set off from the rest of the phrase anyway): “Electrical shock may cause serious burns, injuries to internal organs, such as your heart, and even death.”

2. Examples of enhancements might include reporting on the status of critical enterprise risks; changes in key external variables impacting the validity of the organization’s strategic assumptions; significant emerging risks; the capabilities for managing other important business risks; and the status of initiatives to improve capabilities.

The elements of this list are wordy but not complex, so “supercomma” semicolons are an excessive measure: “Examples of enhancements might include reporting on the status of critical enterprise risks, changes in key external variables impacting the validity of the organization’s strategic assumptions, significant emerging risks, the capabilities for managing other important business risks, and the status of initiatives to improve capabilities.”

3. The basketball star’s legendary moves—aerial assaults; triple-clutch reverse layups; facials on seven-footers; one-handed rebounds or ball fakes; opposing shots stolen from the sky; big-game buzzer beaters at any time—couldn’t be replicated.

As in the previous example, the use of semicolons in this sentence is overkill: “The basketball star’s legendary moves—aerial assaults, triple-clutch reverse layups, facials on seven-footers, one-handed rebounds or ball fakes, opposing shots stolen from the sky, big-game buzzer beaters at any time—couldn’t be replicated.”

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1 Response to “3 Cases of Semicolon Overkill”

  • Michael W. Perry

    As is often the case, the solution to may of these problems is rewriting. Long, overly complex sentences are often better turned in several, simpler sentence.

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