Many dictionaries use a semicolon in a meaning for a word. For instance for the word impertinent I have seen:

"outside the bounds of proper speech or behaviour; impudent; insolent; saucy"

Then there is a synonym explanation of connotations for impertinent, impudent, insolent, and saucy.

My question is: Does the semicolon introduce synonyms always? Does it mean that the word following a semicolon SHARES the meaning of the main entry word you are looking up; that is, the sense preceding the first semicolon in the meaning?

I know that insolent cannot be substituted for impertinent, but maybe impertinent can be substituted for insolent with a loss of connotation.

Just what the heck are these guys who write dictionaries trying to convey with the semicolon in the meaning of a word?

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    When you define a word, the definition you read is not really a "sentence" as such so using a period to separate definitions does not make sense. That's why I think the semicolon is preferred in this case. Also when typing the semicolon please introduce one space afterwards. e.g. "behaviour; impudent; insolent; saucy" - the space is important for proper line wrapping behavior when displaying the text – Brandin Mar 18 '15 at 15:24
  • I'd guess it's a semicolon rather than a comma to emphasise that the synonyms are not necessarily of the close variety. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 19 '15 at 23:27

What follows the semicolon should not be considered as a separate definition, but either a clarification, or just a slightly different connotation of what is before the semicolon. If it were an entirely different definition, it would be listed under a separate number.


Because they're not using complete sentences, they need separators between the thoughts (part of a definition). Since it's possible that a single part of the definition for a word requires the use of a comma, a semicolon is used as a separator to avoid confusion.


Don't read too much into such things. The choice of the semicolon is somewhat arbitrary; the dictionary editors could have chosen to use a period (full stop), slash, or indeed a bulleted list, were it not for space considerations.

While it's true as Nicole says that each component of the definition might contain commas, necessitating a different separator for the listing (a "super-comma" of sorts), I think the larger purpose is clarity. The definition is offering different and equal ways of expressing this sense of the word, that is

  • outside the bounds of proper speech or behaviour
  • impudent
  • insolent
  • saucy

In this specific case, the importance of the semicolon separation may not be obvious, but take for example this definition of romantic from AHD:

2b. Not based on fact; idealized or fictitious

This could be written as

2b. Not based on fact, idealized or fictitious

but that could be misinterpreted initially by the reader in various ways:

2b. Not based on fact, whether that fact is idealized or fictitious
2b. Not based on fact, not idealized, or not fictitious
2b. Not based on fact, not based on the idealized, or not based on the fictitious

The semicolon makes clear what the components of the definition actually are.


  • Not based on fact
  • Idealized or fictitious

Summarising every comment here, view semicolons as super-commas where everything in the list has to apply.

For example, this definition of note from OED

a. trans. To take notice of; to consider or study carefully; to pay attention to; to mark.

is to be interpreted as, to take notice of, to consider or study carefully, to pay attention to, and to mark.

In cases where the statement following the semicolon provides clarification, my rule still applies since both must be applicable as they are just reworded.

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