Consider every odd little detail

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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 pretty amazing we can use it on autopilot.

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 real-world 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, ‘Now you wait and see. 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.

– June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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