Confused About Semicolons? So Is Spellcheck

SemiColon - use it rightDo you get confused about when to use a semicolon?

If so, you’re not alone. So does spellcheck.

This sentence, with the name changed, is from a letter I edited recently for a client:

Charles Smith excelled at his duties while he worked with my team, both as a volunteer and as a paid staff member.

Spellcheck suggested this change:

Charles Smith excelled at his duties while he worked with my team; both as a volunteer and as a paid staff member.

A semicolon is appropriate only when both of the thoughts it separates are independent clauses. In other words, both have to be complete sentences, having at a minimum a subject and a verb. The clause that follows the semicolon in the example — both as a volunteer and as a paid staff member — is not a complete sentence.

This phrasing, adding he (subject) and served (verb) would make a semicolon appropriate:

Charles Smith excelled at his duties while he worked with my team; he served both as a volunteer and as a paid staff member.

The independent clause that follows the semicolon also should relate closely to or depend on the first clause for its meaning. Here are other examples that show when a semicolon works and when it does not.

Right: Carolyn is a gifted gardener; she grows the most beautiful roses.
Wrong: Carolyn is a gifted gardener; with the most beautiful roses.

Right: Use care when washing clothes in hot water; garments can shrink or fade.
Wrong: Use care when washing clothes in hot water; as they can shrink or fade.

Right: Joe is on his way to becoming a respiratory therapist; he has just passed his state boards.
Wrong: Joe is on his way to becoming a respiratory therapist; having just passed his state boards.

For a couple more examples, check out this previous post about Fitbit instructions (see third and fourth examples).

Separating independent clauses is not the only way to use a semicolon. We’ll talk another time about using them to separate multiple elements in a sentence when commas don’t quite do the job.

Back to spellcheck for a moment: As a ruthless editor who can be thorough to a fault, I use it whether I’m writing something from scratch or editing a piece for a client.

I know the silly program isn’t 100 percent reliable; however, spellcheck can be helpful bringing attention to possible misspellings, questionable phrasing or sketchy punctuation. When it catches your attention, you can decide if you want to accept what it suggests.

Grammar dilemma? Email me! You’re probably not the only one seeking an answer.

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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Kathy Watson
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