Grammar and usage for writers (Part IV)

I was asked last weekend if I thought editors made better writers. My answer? Not necessarily.

However, I will say that teaching copy editing and really getting these rules down has made me a better writer. You don’t have to know this stuff in order to craft beautiful prose and write stories that sweep readers away; however, I think learning language and all its nitpicky rules can be beneficial to your writing. When you have a solid understanding of what you’re working with, doesn’t it make the process a little easier?

Sure, an editor will look over your copy before your book hits the presses, but what if you’re querying an agent or sending off a synopsis? You don’t want an agent’s first thought upon seeing your query to be “This person doesn’t know the difference between lay and lie.” That’s why I write these posts: to help you and to give myself a refresher. Seriously, I need it, too!

So today we’ll delve back into the grammar and usage world with the help of one of my favorite fictional couples: Lena and Alex of Lauren Oliver’s “Delirium.”

1. Let’s modify! Compound modifiers

Compound modifiers are pairs of words in which the first word acts as an adverb modifying the second word, which acts as an adjective. Together, these words modify the noun or pronoun that follows, and a hyphen is placed between them to show this. Confused yet? Don’t worry. This is actually quite simple!

  • Lena has a well-intentioned aunt.
  • Lena met Alex at a less-crowded beach.

Without using hyphens in the examples above, it wouldn’t be clear that “well-intentioned” and “less-crowded” are working as units to modify the nouns that follow them.

You also place hyphens between compound modifiers that precede the words they modify.

  • Contracting the deliria is a fear-inducing idea.
  • Alex is a part-time guard.

But this rule applies only to modifiers that precede the word they’re modifying.

  • Alex works part time. Here, “part time” follows the word it modifies so no hyphen is required.

*There’s an always an exception to the rule though, right? Here’s this one: Keep the hyphen in a compound adjective that follows a linking verb.

  • Alex’s work was part-time.

2. Many people figuratively literally don’t know how to use these words correctly.

Figuratively means symbolically. Literally means “actually” or “exactly,” but try to avoid using it as a vague intensifier in place of “really.”

  • When Lena says Alex has hair of autumn leaves, she’s speaking figuratively.
  • “Delirium” literally means “acute confusional state.”

If you ever have trouble with this one, just think of children literally eating books:

“Very young children eat their books, literally devouring their contents. This is one reason for the scarcity of first editions of Alice in Wonderland and other favorites of the nursery.”
-A. S. W. Rosenbach

3. Yes, there’s a difference. (‘into’ v. ‘in to’ and ‘onto’ v. ‘on to’)

Use into to indicate action or motion.

  • Lena walked into the Crypts with Alex.

Use in to as two words when in is used as an adverb and to is used as an infinitive.

  • Alex got Lena in to show her that her mother wasn’t dead.

Use onto as a preposition meaning to move toward and advance upon.

  • Lena climbed onto the fence as she tried to escape into the wilds.

Use on to as two words when on is used as an adverb and to is used as a preposition.

  • Now that Lena has escaped she must move on to live a life without Alex.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

6 thoughts on “Grammar and usage for writers (Part IV)

  1. Aaaand clearly I haven’t been hyphenating things I should have. Oops. I’m bookmarking this post!

  2. I’m so glad you found this helpful! That’s always amazing to hear! If you ever have any burning grammar, usage or punctuation questions, just let me know and I’ll answer them in the next post. Thanks!!

  3. I usually do well, but I haven’t a clue what the rules are, or why we follow them. What can I say? I studied science before veering off into journalism.

    I had a look around today. I’ll be back. :-)

  4. Hi, Richard! Welcome! I studied journalism and now I write mostly science-y articles and always have to double check myself on the facts! ;)

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