Legal Notes by Arvind Datar: The significance of semicolons

The semicolon is an indication of the legislature’s intention to deal with different issues within the single section of a statute.

The semicolon and the comma are both punctuation marks whose purpose is to divide sentences into different parts. In Lambert v. People 32 AM REP 293, it was held that according to well-established grammatical rules, a semicolon is used to separate parts of a sentence more distinctly than a comma.

Citing this decision, the Law Lexicon by Ramanatha Iyer further points out that the semicolon makes the division between the two parts of the sentence a little more prolonged than a comma. It also cites Webster’s Dictionary, which neatly defines the semicolon as a punctuation used to distinguish the conjunct members of a sentence. 

Arvind Datar
Arvind Datar

In Aswini Kumar Ghosh v. Arabinda Bose, AIR 1952 SC 369, Mukherjea J observed that punctuations are minor elements in the construction of a statute and little attention was paid to them by English courts. However, when a statute is carefully punctuated and there is a doubt about its meaning, weight should undoubtedly be given to the punctuation. 

A full bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, in Rajinder Singh v. Kultar Singh, AIR 1950 P&H 1, had occasion to consider the significance of semicolon in erstwhile Entry 3 of List II of Schedule VII of the Constitution (this is now Entry 11A in List III, but in a different form). The full bench held that the semicolon used after the expression “administration of justice” in erstwhile Entry 3, List-II could not be discarded as being inappropriate. The semicolon was used with the definite object of making this topic distinct and not having relation to the topics that followed thereafter. This High Court decision was cited with the approval by a Constitution Bench in Jamshed N Guzdar v. State of Maharashtra (2005) 2 SCC 591, 629.

In Jayant Verma v. Union of India (2018) 4 SCC 743, the Court was mainly concerned with reconciling Entry 45 of List I with Entry 30 of List II. In this decision, the Court laid emphasis on the semicolon in Entry 30 of List II.  The expression of “moneylending and moneylenders” was separate and distinct from the relief of agricultural indebtedness. The Court pointed out that several entries in Schedule VII referred to different matters. For example, Entry 5 of List III reads as follows:-

“5. Marriage and divorce; infants and minors; adoption; wills, intestacy and succession; joint family and partition, all matters in respect of which parties in judicial proceedings were immediately before the commencement of this Constitution subject to their personal law.”

This makes it clear that each subject matter is separate and distinct from what follows each semicolon. Other examples are Entry 6 of List III, which deals with the “transfer of property other than agricultural land,” and, after a semicolon, “registration of deeds and documents”. These are thus two distinct matters.

Apart from the Constitution, the Supreme Court had occasion to recently consider the effect of the semicolon in Commissioner, Customs, Central and Excise and Service Tax v. Shapoorji Pallonji Limited, (2023) SCC OnLine 1330. In this case, the Court emphasized that where the statute was free from any ambiguity, there was no need to apply any principle of interpretation. It held, on the facts of that case, that the use of a semicolon was not trivial and was deliberately inserted with the clear intention to differentiate two sub-clauses in a statutory provision. 

Thus, while the semicolon can assume significance to determine what are distinct matters in a constitutional or statutory provision, it is also an indication of the legislature’s intention to deal with different issues within the single section of a statute. The semicolon is an indication of such distinctions.

Arvind P Datar is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court.

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