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A Word, Please: Things can get complicated at any time

If you sometimes struggle with "it's" and "its," if you don't know the past tense of the verb "to lead," if you write "could of" instead of "could've," this column isn't for you. Turn the page. Click something else. Run like the wind.

I say that not out of elitism, but out of concern. Grammar is about to get ugly here, and I don't want to make you feel that you're hopeless. You're not. But if you read on, you'll think you are. So come back soon when we've resumed our regularly scheduled program of grammar topics that don't make people bang their heads against a wall.

See you then!

OK, who's left? Just the hardy bring-it-on types, I see. Good. I'll get right to the point.

"Anytime" is an adverb that, like all adverbs, can be used adverbially. "Any time" is a noun phrase that, like many noun phrases, can be used adverbially.

That's right: "any time" can be used, well, anytime you would use "anytime." But to understand why — and to understand how to make the best choices — you need to know two of grammar's best-kept secrets: Adverbs aren't just those words that modify verbs, and adverbials can be different parts of speech — not just adverbs.

This can of worms was pried open recently by reader Al, who noticed something interesting in one of my recent columns. I had written "Anytime you needed help writing something" and also "anytime you needed a bet settled" in a single paragraph.

That piqued Al's interest: "It just seems to me that 'any time' and 'any time' would've been better."

Al explained that the two have different connotations. "Any time" means at a specific but not yet known time. "Anytime" is not specific, meaning something like "whenever."

I can see his point. But the question of how to choose between the two has nothing to do with meaning. The answer is in the grammar.

Consider the sentence "Joe can run quickly." The adverb is modifying the verb. But make that "Joe can run anytime" and the structure doesn't change. "Anytime" is plugged into the sentence the same way that "quickly" was. It's functioning adverbially.

Adverbs don't just answer the question "in what manner?" They also answer the questions "when?" and "where?" In "I'll see you tomorrow," surprising as it seems, "tomorrow" is an adverb. It's even listed as one in dictionaries. In "I'll see you there," the word "there" is an adverb.

But adverbs aren't the only things that can function adverbially. Noun phrases can, too. The noun "Tuesday" isn't listed in the dictionary as an adverb. Yet it can do the same job as "tomorrow" in "I'll see you tomorrow." It's a noun functioning adverbially but answering the question "when?"

Prepositional phrases can function adverbially, too. "I'll see you at noon." Here, the prepositional phrase "at noon" is telling us when. So it's working adverbially.

In "any time," you have a noun, "time," and another word modifying it. That makes this a noun phrase — a group of two or more words that work together as a noun because their head word is a noun.

To do the job of an adverbial, you can use a word already recognized as an adverb, like "anytime" in "I'll see you anytime." Or you can use a noun phrase like "any time."

Interestingly, though you can use the noun phrase as an adverb, you can't use the adverb as a noun. "Any time is good" requires the two-word version because you need a noun for the subject of your verb "is."

In my original phrasing, "Anytime you needed help writing," the word "anytime" is working adverbially. We know this because the verb already has a subject: you. And because adverbs like "anytime" and noun phrases like "any time" can both be adverbials, my way was correct, and so was Al's.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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