It’s a curious thing: we’re a culture that prizes science highly, yet when it comes to language, the very instrument of our scientific culture, we are often reluctant to learn something of its own science, grammar. The result? We take the long way home.
Consider, for example, the common problem writers seem to have in deciding between every day and everyday. Do I walk my dog every day or everyday? One way to decide the issue, of course, is to say it doesn’t matter: who in the world could possibly care about a matter so minute, especially when the reader will be able to figure out anyway what it is we’re trying to say? And that is true to some extent, for under the eye of eternity, whether two words or one is of little concern.
But the matter is important to the craft of writing, because every craft, or art, follows a procedure, a way of doing things, to achieve its end successfully. If we don’t know how language works, we work haphazardly, by guesswork, opinion, or apathy, and this obscures the reader’s vision; we forget that we are trying to show someone clearly in language what we see in our mind, and the way to that vision is often beset with misunderstandings. Few readers are content for long to see through a glass darkly, and they will abandon us if we can’t work according to the rules of the game.
Grammar, then, is the science that organizes the facts of language, the prime fact of which is words and how they work together. Part of the technology of grammar is a device called the parts of speech, nothing more than a set of eight categories into one or more of which we assign words to understand how they function in a given statement. If we apply this technology to the problem at hand, we can decide between every day or everyday quickly and assuredly.
Two of the eight parts of speech are the adjective and the adverb. Adjectives answer the question what kind of? and adverbs answer when? The word everyday is an adjective and the phrase every day is an adverb. And by applying that simple grammatical science, we will never have to think through the question again: I walk my dog every day, for that is when I walk my dog. And it’s an everyday activity, for that’s what kind of activity it is. A mayor deals every day with the everyday problems of running a city, and watching what I eat is an everyday challenge, although I go to the gym every day.
Questions like this abound in English, and left to our own devices, we can’t work with the confidence we should. Grammar is complex, but it’s not complicated, and if we can jump over our reluctance to learn a little about it, we will find ourselves able to make our own decisions as apprentices—and even masters.