‘Ev­ery’ is not just any old mod­i­fier

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - ADVICE - JUNE CASAGRANDE a WORD, Please

Ever think about the word “ev­ery”? Prob­a­bly not. Na­tive speak­ers don’t have to pon­der this word to use it cor­rectly. They just do.

But when you no­tice how this mod­i­fier af­fects the nouns it mod­i­fies, it’s a thing to be­hold:

Tom, Dick and Harry read Shake­speare.

Ev­ery Tom, Dick and Harry reads Shake­speare.

No­tice the verbs. With­out “ev­ery,” the verb is “read,” which is con­ju­gated in the plu­ral be­cause “Tom, Dick and Harry” is a plu­ral sub­ject. But tack on an “ev­ery” and sud­denly the verb is “reads.” It’s con­ju­gated for a sin­gu­lar verb. Why? Be­cause the word “ev­ery” has spe­cial pow­ers. In this case, it has the power to make a co­or­di­nate noun phrase work like a sin­gu­lar.

A co­or­di­nate noun phrase is a col­lec­tion of nouns joined by the co­or­di­nat­ing con­junc­tion “and” used to­gether as a sub­ject, “Bob and Rob work here,” or an ob­ject, “We in­vited Bob and Rob.” When a co­or­di­nate noun phrase has more than two items, it’s stan­dard to join all but the last two with com­mas: Bob, Rob and An­gela. And, as we’ve discussed be­fore, a comma be­fore the “and,” called a se­rial comma, is op­tional: Bob, Rob, and An­gela.

Co­or­di­nate noun phrases are usu­ally con­sid­ered plu­ral. Un­like “Bob is here,” the verb be­comes plu­ral in “Bob and Rob are here” be­cause that’s how co­or­di­nate noun phrases work. Usu­ally.

The ad­jec­tive “ev­ery” has the power to change the equa­tion. Put it in front of our co­or­di­nate noun phrase and sud­denly the verb is sin­gu­lar: Ev­ery Bob and Rob is here.

The idea is that “ev­ery” has the un­usual abil­ity to sin­gle out each noun it mod­i­fies. Other ad­jec­tives don’t do any­thing like that.

Hand­some Bob and Rob are here. “Hand­some” doesn’t change the fact that the verb should be the plu­ral “are.”

Most fas­ci­nat­ing: This prop­erty of “ev­ery” isn’t even an of­fi­cial rule. There’s no tech­ni­cal ter­mi­nol­ogy to put this odd dy­namic into rule form. In­stead, ex­perts just cite com­mon prac­tice.

“When ‘ev­ery’ mod­i­fies two or more nouns joined by ‘and,’ there is mixed us­age, at least in part be­cause of the rule that com­pound sub­jects joined by ‘and’ are both gram­mat­i­cally and no­tion­ally plu­ral,” notes Mer­riam-web­ster’s Dic­tio­nary of English Us­age. “‘Ev­ery,’ how­ever, tends to em­pha­size each noun sep­a­rately, and the sin­gu­lar verb is com­mon.”

No­tice that Mer­riam’s isn’t de­scrib­ing a rule, just a dy­namic. They’re not say­ing you should do this, only that peo­ple do.

But not al­ways. Some­times nouns mod­i­fied by “ev­ery” are teamed up with a plu­ral verb.

“Ev­ery phrase, ev­ery line and ev­ery stanza are in­dis­sol­ubly welded.”

“Ev­ery sin­gle word and mean­ing of great an­cient writ­ers like Ge­of­frey Chaucer were recorded in the OED.”

Both these ex­am­ples are cited in Mer­riam’s. They prove that “ev­ery” doesn’t al­ways ne­ces­si­tate a sin­gu­lar verb.

The dual na­ture of “ev­ery” is even more ev­i­dent when you look at the way pro­nouns work with it. Some­times, a sin­gu­lar pro­noun refers to “ev­ery.” “Ev­ery dog has its day.”

But other times, as in this Harry Tru­man quote pil­fered from Mer­riam’s, a plu­ral pro­noun stands in for “ev­ery”: “I said, ‘Ev­ery man in this United States that’s got a daugh­ter will be on my side.’ And it turned out they were.”

Here, Tru­man uses the plu­ral pro­noun “they” to re­fer to “ev­ery man.” That’s a nat­u­ral choice, odd only when you think about it. You wouldn’t say, “Ev­ery man have a daugh­ter,” with the plu­ral verb “have.” You’d say, “Ev­ery man has a daugh­ter,” with the sin­gu­lar verb “has.”

So just as “ev­ery” can cause some plu­ral sub­jects to act like sin­gu­lars, some­times it has the op­po­site ef­fect, caus­ing a sin­gu­lar like “ev­ery man” to act like a plu­ral.

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