Grammar and usage for writers (Part II)

This week we’ll cover the following fascinating topics: every day v. everyday, the misplaced ‘only,’ em dashes v. en dashes, subjunctive mood and serial commas. And we’ll do it with the help of Stephanie Perkins‘ Lola Nolan and Cricket Bell!

1. People misuse ‘everyday’ every day

You breath every day. You may daydream about Cricket Bell every day. But you do not breathe everyday or daydream everyday. “Everyday” is an adjective and “every day” is an adverb and therefore they are two different things. As an adjective, you can use “everyday” to mean “ordinary,” but it must be used as one word to modify a noun.

  • For Lola, costumes are everyday outfits.

Here, “everyday” is modifying the noun “outfits” in the same way you that you could use any other adjective.

  • Costumes are creative outfits.
  • Costumes are fun outfits.

On the other hand, “every day” means the same thing as “each day.”

  • Lola wears costumes every day.
  • I daydream about Cricket Bell every day.

2. If only we knew where to place ‘only’

This one requires a little bit of thinking as you write, but it’s actually fairly simple.

  • Only Cricket loves Lola. (This means that no one else loves Lola but Cricket — not her dads, her mom or her friends.)
  • Cricket only loves Lola. (This means that Cricket has no emotion toward Lola except love.)
  • Cricket loves only Lola. (This means that Cricket loves no one else but Lola.)

Do you see what I did there?

3. There are two kinds of dashes? (As Kristen requested)

Believe it or not, there are! Meet two of my good friends: En Dash and Em Dash. You probably know Em Dash by his nickname “Dash,” or by the fact that I use him entirely too much in my writing. (I love Em Dash so much that I wish I could have him tattooed on my other wrist as a companion to my interrobang tat. However, because Em Dash is essentially just a line, I feel like this isn’t something I should pay to have permanently inked on my body. I could simply Sharpie that sucker onto my other wrist on the days I want him hang out with Interrobang and me.)

*A hyphen is not a baby dash! Do not use a hyphen in place of a dash. Now, forget about hyphens for now. We’ll talk about them on another exciting Thursday.

To help you get better acquainted with En Dash and Em Dash, it might help you to understand why they have these names. It’s actually quite simple: Traditionally, the em dash is as long as the typeset capital M and the en dash is as long as the typeset capital N. That’s it. Nothing fancy!

The en dash is really used only in situations where you’re referencing periods of time.

  • Cricket and Lola will be at Calliope’s skating competition November 3-November 5. (Simple enough, right?)

The em dash is commonly used for these purposes:

  • To set off parenthetical material or a list: There are many things Lola liked about Cricket his height, his inventive mind and his pants that made her fall head over heels for him.
  • For emphasis that dramatically ends a sentence: Lola was heartbroken and the only boy she wanted to see was the very boy she’d been avoiding Cricket.

Notes on em dashes:

  • You can create an em dash with this keyboard shortcut: shift + option + hyphen. Use this enough and you don’t even have to think about it — your fingers just do it. If you just can’t get it down, two hyphens will suffice.
  • If you write in Scrivener (you know, because Scrivener is awesome), you can type two hyphens in a row and Scrivener will magically transform them into an em dash for you!

4. If I were you, I’d learn when to use subjunctive mood. (As Liza requested)

The subjunctive should be used when you’re talking about any condition that’s contrary to fact, including a wish, a doubt, a prayer, a desire, a hope or a request. Often, a good indicator that the subjunctive mood should be used is the presence of the word “if” — BUT NOT ALWAYS.

  • If I was were Lola (but I’m not), I’d take Cricket to the dance.
  • If Max wasn’t weren’t such a jerk (but he is), maybe readers would like him.
  • I wish I was were Cricket’s neighbor (but I’m not).

Because we’re talking about something that isn’t true, we use the subjunctive mood of the verb “to be.” (The most common errors made with the subjunctive mood are made with this verb.)

But “if” won’t always be there to clue you in that the subjunctive is needed. And sometimes “if” will appear in a sentence just to make you think you need the subjunctive, but this a deceitful “if”! Here are some more specific rules about when to use the subjunctive. *These aren’t ALL the rules of the subjunctive — just the ones I think you’re most likely to encounter when you’re writing.

1. Use the subjunctive after “as if.”

  • Max acts as if he were a real catch.

2. Use it for most dependent clauses beginning with “if.” (Don’t remember the difference between independent and dependent clauses? No problem. Here’s a simple refresher.)

  • If I were Lola’s dads (but I’m not), I wouldn’t want her dating Max either.
  • If loving Cricket is wrong, I don’t want to be right. (I don’t believe loving Cricket is actually wrong. “Is” is the present tense of the subjunctive mood.)

What about these?

  • If Cricket’s invention works, he will be famous. (The “if” here introduces a condition that could be true. Cricket’s invention might work and it might not work; however, what’s important here is that that statement we’re making isn’t known to be false. Because of this, we use the indicative mood for the verb “works.”)
  • Cricket must have gone home if he is not in Lola’s room. (If we know that Cricket isn’t in Lola’s room, then we use the indicative instead of the subjunctive because the subjunctive is used only when there’s a condition contrary to fact.)

3. If the verb in the independent clause (IC) is in the indicative mood, the verb in the dependent clause (DC) is also usually in the indicative. If the verb in the IC is in the conditional mood, the verb in the DC is usually in the subjunctive. (OK, take a deep breath and bear with me. This is easier than it sounds)

  • Lola can date Cricket if she wants to. (Can and want are both indicative)
  • Lola could fix that dress were she given the right tools. (Could is conditional. Were is subjunctive.)

As I said before, these aren’t ALL the rules for the subjunctive mood, but hopefully this is enough to give you a general understanding of when to use it.

*If you’re writing dialogue, your characters might not necessarily use the subjunctive mood correctly in their speech. Unless, of course, your character is an English professor or a nerdy journalist like I am.

5. Who gives a f*@k about the Oxford comma? (As China requested)

I don’t. Well, actually, I kind of do. Let me explain. I don’t understand why people get into arguments over the Oxford comma, or serial comma, because one isn’t right and one isn’t wrong. (Is it weird that I know people who get into such arguments? Do I just hang out with the wrong kind of people?) The serial comma basically comes down to a style choice. Most book publishers opt for the serial comma, and you’ll find it in style guides like Chicago and APA.

However, I’m a formally trained journalist who was taught that the AP Style Guide is essentially a canonical text. Most journalists don’t use the serial comma — unless, of course, we need it for clarification purposes. It’s not that we inherently dislike the serial comma. In fact, a lot of it has to do with history. Way back in the day, newspapers were printed using stamps that cost a lot of money and took a lot of time to move around. Sticking in an extra comma in a series meant that the printer would have to physically shift over an entire stamp for that comma — a comma that really wasn’t even necessary most of the time. If you had to go to all that trouble every time you wanted to use an Oxford comma, you’d quit using it, too.

Yes, I do write even my WIP in AP Style. I use the serial comma only for clarification purposes, I capitalize “OK” when my characters say it, and until a couple years ago, I wrote “website” as “web site.” My crit partners deal with it. They’re awesome.

Well, that was exhausting, huh? Looking for a fun read with some eye candy? Check out my interview with Ian Somerhalder!

Dying to read more grammar tips? Last week we went over these topics: you and I v. you and me, between v. among, gerunds and possessives, farther v. further and using commas when addressing people. And we did all of this with the help of Katniss and Peeta!

7 thoughts on “Grammar and usage for writers (Part II)

  1. DUDE! You rock my world! Thanks for all these refresher courses! I don’t know why that whole subjunctive thing is such a pet peeve of mine, but thank you for preaching about it so well! ^_^

  2. Love, love this post. I read the whole thing. Especially like how you explain when to use “was” and “were.” You should have a subscribe option especially for these posts. I’d totally subscribe! :)

  3. I’m glad I could help, Liza! And thanks for asking about it!

    Thanks so much, Victoria! The subscribe option is kind of hard to find. I’ll need to get my web guru (a.k.a. the boyfriend on that). Thanks for the tip! ;)

  4. I love your grammar lessons; however, I see that you start sentences with ‘however.’ I was taught that it should never start a sentence.

  5. Hi, Sheri! This is one of those things that we’re taught as kids never to do. It’s in the same league as never beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, etc.) and never ending a sentence with a preposition. However, it’s totally OK. Here’s a much more eloquent explanation than I could ever give:

    So feel free to use “however” at the beginning of a sentence. Go crazy with it! ;)

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