Casagrande: Modifying opinions about grammar obsessives

Here's a little test that will tell you if you're suffering from a serious personality disorder I just made up.

Imagine you're cruising along the street looking for a place to park when you see a sign that says, "No parking at anytime." Do you 1.) look for another spot, 2.) park there anyway, or 3.) spend the next 10 years pondering the grammar of that sign?

If you chose 1, you may be sane. If you chose 2, you may be an Angeleno. But if you chose 3, you just might be a grammar obsessive.

The good news is, you're not alone. These days, we grammar obsessives are out of the closet and finding help and friendship in online communities, like the message board on which I found the discussion about the difference between "anytime" and "any time," and how the word "at" might affect which one you should choose.

The person who saw the sign all those years ago didn't think the word "at" belonged in it. "I think it should have read 'No parking anytime,'" she wrote. Many others shared her view.

"I would agree: 'No parking at any time.' However, 'no parking anytime' is also acceptable. Anybody? (any body?)" one wrote, hoping for confirmation.

"I agree, too," another chimed in. "The 'at' changes it up. 'No parking anytime' is fine, but ... I don't think I can tell you why without a fair amount of stammering."

Being a little grammar obsessive myself, I find it fascinating that, though none of the users on that message board could explain the difference between "anytime" and "any time" or how "at" affected the sign, they all had it right.

That, in a nutshell, captures what grammar is all about. It's not a list of laws made up by some elite group. It's really just an explanation of how we talk normally — whether we understand the mechanics of our own speech or not.

To understand why the sign "No parking at anytime" was wrong and why "No parking anytime" and "No parking at any time" are both right, you need to look at the parts of speech involved.

The word "at" is a preposition. "Anytime" is an adverb. And "time" is a noun. Prepositions take objects, which are usually nouns or pronouns. They're never adverbs. So when you have "No parking at …" the one-word "anytime" can't follow. What follows must be a noun like "time," which can have an adjective like "any" modifying it.

Adverbs, aside from their most famous job of modifying verbs, also answer the questions "where?" and "when?" So after "No parking," if you want to answer the question "when?" an adverb is a good choice: "No parking anytime." However, noun phrases can function adverbially too. So you could write "No parking any time."

Interestingly, this may only apply in American English. According to "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage," English experts on the other side of the Atlantic don't recognize the one-word "anytime," which seems to have disappeared altogether from formal British usage since the 1940s.

Here in the U.S., though, the one-word "anytime" is sanctioned by dictionaries as an adverb. So when you have to choose between it and its two-word cousin, remember that, after "at," only the two-word "any time" will do.

You can use this same lesson to choose between "awhile" and "a while." In "Stay for a while," the preposition "for" needs a noun like "while" for an object. Because "awhile" is an adverb, it should never follow "for" in this common expression.

Hopefully, this lesson can reduce some of the mental health hazards associated with parking.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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