3 Cases of Superfluous Semicolons

By Mark Nichol

Semicolons serve one of two purposes: A semicolon can act as a weak period to separate two independent clauses so closely associated that dividing them into distinct sentences might seem excessive, or it can function as a supercomma in a sentence consisting of a list in which one or more items ordinarily separated by commas themselves include commas. Sometimes, however, employment of a semicolon in one of these roles seems to be merited but is not. The following examples, each followed by a discussion and a revision, illustrate such unnecessary usage.

1. Another factor is the actual speed of disruption; specifically, the ability of organizations to change rapidly.

A semicolon used as a weak period must separate two independent clauses. Because the second half of this sentence is a mere subordinate clause, the semicolon is not appropriate. Using a comma in place of a semicolon fails to clarify the hierarchy of the sentence (preceding and following specifically with a comma would at least temporarily obscure whether specifically applies to the clause before it or the one that follows), so a dash is the best alternative: “Another factor is the actual speed of disruption—specifically, the ability of organizations to change rapidly.” (Parenthesizing the subordinate clause is also an option, but parentheses serve to diminish the impact of additional information, while a dash emphasizes it.)

2. This evaluation should include ascertaining which account balances are touched by the work of the provider; the related internal control assertions; how results are evaluated for reasonableness within established tolerances as dictated by the desired precision of the control activities in question; and whether the provider conforms to the organization’s code of conduct.

Most of the list items in this sentence are long, but a semicolon exists to delineate complex phrases that already include commas rather than to set off extensive phrases; the statement is coherent without fortifying the divisions by changing the punctuation from commas to semicolons, so the latter are not necessary: “This evaluation should include ascertaining which account balances are touched by the work of the provider, the related internal control assertions, how results are evaluated for reasonableness within established tolerances as dictated by the desired precision of the control activities in question, and whether the provider conforms to the organization’s code of conduct.”

3. Soon, it becomes clear that the implications of the change reach farther than the finance and accounting group to impact operations, potentially leading to decisions to restructure customer contracts and pricing models; adjust sales commission and incentive compensation plans; modify debt covenants; assess tax planning strategies; and impact mergers and acquisitions transactions, forecasting reports, executive dashboards, and partnership and joint venture reports.

Readers might conceivably be confused by this sentence’s organization because of the complexity of the list item “impact mergers . . . joint venture reports,” so retaining the semicolons is defensible, but because it is last in the sentence, it is probably safe to simplify punctuation by using commas in place of semicolons: “Soon, it becomes clear that the implications of the change reach farther than the finance and accounting group to impact operations, potentially leading to decisions to restructure customer contracts and pricing models, adjust sales commission and incentive compensation plans, modify debt covenants, assess tax planning strategies, and impact mergers and acquisitions transactions, forecasting reports, executive dashboards, and partnership and joint venture reports.”

Recommended for you: « »



1 Response to “3 Cases of Superfluous Semicolons”

  • Julie Link

    In the final example, the punctuation is correct as written if the phrase “potentially leading to decisions to restructure customer contracts and pricing models” is a possible result of “impacting operations.” The “further implications of the change” are listed as infinitives—impact, adjust, modify, assess, impact—and “potentially leading to…” modifies the first implication, “impact operations.” Is this a possible reading?
    It’s a clunky sentence that would benefit from revision, but I don’t set as incorrect.
    (In addition to revising, I would replace “farther” with “further” in the first phrase.)

Leave a comment: