Personally, I think the phrase should be punctuated like this:

"United, we stand; divided, we fall."

The thing is, I could envision "United we stand" without a comma perhaps because it's often used as a declaration/affirmation.

However, it's the second part that gets me because something about the placement of "divided" in the front of "divided we fall" makes me feel like a comma is required after "divided" and so in the interest of maintaining symmetry, I also inserted a comma after "united".

I have a feeling it's because "united" and "divided" are serving two different purposes within their own clauses, that is, "united" is being used as an adverb while "divided" is more like an answer and clause of its own (in response to the implied question of "Why did we fall?"), so that while on the surface, the two may simply appear to be modifiers, one is actually something more.

  • 1
    Why do you think those adverbs not predicate adjectives?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 11 at 12:27

2 Answers 2


Yes; one might well expect the punctuation to be

  • United, we stand; divided, we fall.

But usage trumps normal conventions, and the rendering is almost always

  • United we stand, divided we fall.
  • 'United we stand, divided we fall' is a phrase used in many different kinds of mottos ...


  • The phrase 'United we stand, divided we fall' has been traced back to the Greek storyteller Aesop, who lived during the 6th century BC.


The comma splice and absolute adjective offsetting commas (compare 'Exhausted, he sat down on a rock') being omitted is seen as less of a problem than the stop-cluttered more traditionally punctuated version.

There is a modern trend to adopt lighter punctuation where clarity isn't compromised.

This is especially so with the dropping of commas where gaps are not inserted in speech, which is an option here (where the commas would be in the fully punctuated version). Ordinarily, an absolute adjective before an independent clause requires a comma, but here, the fact that there are two such strings makes this requirement less binding. The one pause is sufficient, and reflects the way the fixed expression is usually pronounced.

But what about the medial comma, where a semicolon might be expected? Barbara Wallraff in her book 'Word Court' goes further than 'a comma may on occasion be acceptable [between independent clauses]', commenting on the sentence

  • It's not a comet, it's a meteor.:

'[P]unctuating this sentence with a semicolon would be like using a C-clamp to hold a sandwich together.'


The choice is yours bumblebee!

How you've written it seems fine to me ("United, we stand; divided, we fall.") – provided it's meant as one sentence with a big pause (for effect) in the middle. It definitely comes off as something said in a speech, rather than read in a book.

Visually it's quite clunky and leaves a lot to be desired. As for the commas, if you said it out loud, would you pause there? It really just depends how you audibly hear it in your head.

Semicolons (;) can come off as a bit smug – perhaps '–' is better if you're worried about alienating your audience.

If this is being conveyed in type (especially if it's on it's own with a lot of empty space) I feel that flatly stating "United we stand. Divided we fall." expresses what you mean. It reads more like a slogan that way, so if you're worried about coming off as trite, I would avoid this.

(I don't know that people of yesteryear would love the last version, but alas, I am not them and English, and what's 'correct,' is always changing.)

My personal vote is 'United we stand – divided, we fall'. It's easy on the eyes, conveys importance, calls for a little gap in the middle (that doesn't come off as sanctimonious)... etc etc

(and also BLAMO! with the added bonus of not looking like newspeak)

But, okay. I hate this sentence now. Best of luck.

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