Many writers—even professional ones—are wary about employing semicolons, at best because the punctuation mark carries a hint of excessive formality and at worst because users aren’t clear on the concept. However, some writers who do use them are confused, too, and are apt to include semicolons when they aren’t warranted. Unnecessary semicolons litter the following sentences, and the discussions and revisions that follow each example explain the problem and offer solutions.
First, a primer. Semicolons have two functions: They serve as weak periods and strong commas. In the first role, they separate two independent clauses so closely related that dividing them into two distinct sentences seems excessive. In the second role, they supplant commas separating elements in an in-line list (a series of related items in a sentence) when one or more of those elements itself includes one or more commas, helping clarify the sentence organization. This post focuses on the latter function.
1. Pressures from boards; volatile markets; intensifying competition; demanding and potentially disruptive regulatory requirements; changing workplace dynamics; shifting customer preferences; uncertainty regarding catastrophic events; and other dynamic forces are leading to increasing calls for management to design and implement effective risk management capabilities, as well as response mechanisms to identify, assess, and manage the organization’s key risk exposures.
Writers sometimes call in the heavy-lifting semicolons when a list is extensive but not complex. However, no matter how many elements a list includes, if none if them is further subdivided, commas suffice. Furthermore, semicolons can serve as supercommas only when an in-line list constitutes the predicate of the sentence (the part that follows the subject). Here, the list itself constitutes the subject, which results in confusing syntax.
For both reasons, use only commas in this sentence: “Pressures from boards, volatile markets, intensifying competition, demanding and potentially disruptive regulatory requirements, changing workplace dynamics, shifting customer preferences, uncertainty regarding catastrophic events, and other dynamic forces are leading to increasing calls for management to design and implement effective risk management capabilities, as well as response mechanisms to identify, assess, and manage the organization’s key risk exposures.”
2. Smith, who raised roughly three million dollars more than Jones; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and allied groups, spent millions on data and organizing efforts to turn out traditionally Democratic demographic groups, such as college students, blacks, and Native Americans.
Here, the list is a parenthetical that is technically part of the subject—it precedes the sentence’s primary verb, spent—and the punctuation strength is inverted; the commas preceding and following the list carry more syntactical weight (setting off the parenthetical in which the semicolons are employed) than the semicolons themselves.
Furthermore, semicolons are unnecessary in this sentence—as in the previous example, no element in the list itself includes punctuation, so semicolons are superfluous: “Smith, who raised roughly three million dollars more than Jones, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and allied groups, spent millions on data and organizing efforts to turn out traditionally Democratic demographic groups, such as college students, blacks, and Native Americans.” (The punctuation setting off the parenthesis doesn’t need to be stronger than the punctuation setting off the list within it, because the relative weight of the parenthesis and the list elements is already evident.)
3. Traditional methodologies; long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs; and conventional thinking simply can’t accomplish these tasks at the speed of change that is occurring.
But what if one or more elements in an in-line list itself include punctuation, as here? (The writer does not want long-trusted (which is part of the element “long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs”) to appear to be a distinct element after “traditional methodologies and before “stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs.” (The third element is “conventional thinking.”)
Unfortunately, this sentence has the same flaw as the first example above—a list that constitutes the subject should not include semicolons. A possible revision involves setting off the second and third items as a parenthetical: “Traditional methodologies, as well as long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs, and conventional thinking, simply can’t accomplish these tasks at the speed of change that is occurring.” However, the comma after needs is necessary so that “conventional thinking” is not read as part of the preceding item, but because there is now a series of commas with multiple syntactical roles, the sentence’s organization is still muddled.
A cleaner solution is to transpose the second and third elements so that the more complex element stands alone as a parenthetical: “Traditional methodologies and conventional thinking, as well as long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs, simply can’t accomplish these tasks at the speed of change that is occurring.”
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Original post: 3 Sentences in Which Semicolons Are Superfluous
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