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A Word, Please: Of adjectives and noun phrases

A Word, Please: Of adjectives and noun phrases
Columnist June Casagrande

It’s a billboard custom-tailored to grammar buffs. “Every day we help people get back to their everyday,” proclaims the ad for Keck Medical Center of USC. In that single sentence, the copy writer does more to help people with grammar than I probably will in this whole column. But I’ll give it a long-winded shot anyway.

The best thing about this line of marketing copy, grammar-wise at least, is that it succinctly illustrates something far too few people know — that both every day and everyday are valid forms. Plus, it deftly illustrates proper use of each while sneaking in lessons in advanced grammar concepts.


Not that motorists merging onto the Arroyo Seco Parkway to downtown Los Angeles are hitting the brakes to get a language lesson. But anyone who bothers to read all 10 words is likely to register that “every day” and “everyday” both have their place — or at least wonder whether a proofreader made a whopper of a mistake.

Many people believe that a term is either one word or it isn’t. And I see this thinking in the way people use the word everyday practically every day.


“Great values everyday!” “Low prices everyday!” “I drink coffee everyday.”

These are wrong. The one-word form is an adjective, so it would usually modify a noun.

“We offer everyday values!”

“Check out our everyday low prices.”


“Coffee is an everyday indulgence.”

In each of these examples the one-word form is used correctly because it’s modifying a noun, as adjectives are supposed to do.

The two-word “every day” is correct in “We offer values every day,” “low prices every day” and “I drink coffee every day.”

Unlike its one-word cousin, every day is not an adjective. It’s a noun phrase. Its head word is “day,” and “every” is an adjective modifying it. Together they function as a single unit. But the job this noun phrase performs in the sentence might surprise some people: It’s functioning adverbially.


The term “adverb” describes a word class, but the term “adverbial” describes a function — a job words can do. A word or phrase that answers questions like “when?” and “where?” is working adverbially. So in “Bobby plays outside,” the adverb outside is answering the question: where? In “Sarah works frequently,” the adverb “frequently:" addresses the issue of when.

But adverbs aren’t the only words that can function adverbially. Nouns can, too. In “Sarah works Tuesday,” the noun Tuesday is functioning adverbially because it’s indicating the “when.”

So in “Every day we help people,” the noun phrase “every day” is working adverbially, shedding light on when, exactly, the hospital helps people.

But our billboard contains yet another advanced grammar lesson, couched in its last word, “everyday.”

As I said, “everyday” is an adjective. But in the phrase “get back to their everyday,” it’s really functioning as a noun. It’s the thing people are getting back to. The object of the preposition. So how do we explain this adjective moonlighting as a noun? With the term “nominal adjective.”

Think about these sentences. “They serve the poor.” “They cater to the wealthy. " “Jane is the smarter of the two.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.” In these sentences, the adjectives poor, wealthy, smarter and meek are working as nouns. That’s what we mean by nominal adjectives.

So there are a lot of good lessons in this one simple billboard. But the most important one is that “Everyday” is an adjective, “every day” is a noun phrase and each has its place.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at