It is early morning, nearly autumn. The fall equinox is a day away, and every day when I take Jeff for his morning constitutional, I notice the air getting cooler, even as the humidity remains high: ninety percent this morning, wet enough, if you walk fast enough, to soak through your Pernice Brothers sandwich t-shirt. But that’s not unusual for me. To be honest, regardless of the humidity, sweating up a rock-swag t-shirt is pretty much an everyday occurrence in my household. It’s something I do just about every day, if you know what I mean.
Speaking of “every day” and “everyday”:
As I was perusing Slate.com this morning (an everyday thing for me), I was assaulted by the banner ad below:
Sigh. I really don’t want to be the grammar police. Maybe you can give me some perspective.
I’ve just about given up on “alright” being all right and “literally” literally meaning “figuratively.” But I’m still clinging to the idea that there’s a difference between “everyday” (adjective, e.g., “Reading is an everyday activity for me”) and “every day” (an adjective and a noun usually used in an adverbial way, e.g., “I read every day”).
In other words, I believe that Amazon, the world’s larger purveyor of books, has a giant grammatical error in its ad (which is also a mess of basic typographic style consistency. I guess the headline and subhead are rendered in title case, with the little words not capitalized. But if you’re using those periods in your subhead, shouldn’t you use them in your headline, too? And the title case with the all-caps “SHOP NOW” button and the all-lower-case “amazon” logotype—it just looks weird and wrong).
But is it wrong? Or is it just a change?
When is it new and okay, and when is it just wrong?
Those are the questions currently puzzling me. As a copywriter, it’s part of my job to be concerned with precision and clarity in the English language. If words don’t mean what we think they mean—e.g., “literally” means the opposite of “literally”—then we might as well go back to pointing and grunting.
But it would be difficult to argue for a diminishment of clarity in the case of “every day” versus “everyday” (or “alright” versus “all right”). There’s no mistaking what the folks at Amazon mean their ad to say: They want you to buy more stuff, and want you to look at the stuff they sell on a daily basis.
My problem is more a diminishment of elegance. “Every day” and “everyday” not only look different to my eye, they sound different to my ear—and to yours. The syllables are stressed differently, as is clear when you say them out loud: “I complain about language every day” versus “Complaining is an everyday thing in my world.”
That’s different from the case of “alright” and “all right.” The prior is offensive to my eye, but not my ear.
But, as with “literally,” there’s also a diminishment of meaning: these words simply do not mean the same thing. “Every day” refers to something I do every day. “Everyday” means “quotidian” or “suitable for use every day.” The difference is not as absurd as “literally” meaning its polar opposite, but there it is.
what’s a responsible copywriter to do?
When we can’t trust America’s biggest bookseller to respect the English language, what are we to do? Stand on our Grammar Nazi pulpits and shake our fingers? Cower in despair? Accept blindly the misheard phrase that becomes accepted usage?
(I’m looking at you, “hone in.” People misheard “home in” for so long, and “hone in” became so ubiquitous, that now it’s accepted. I understand it; we don’t much use “home” as a verb anymore [as opposed to “any more,” btw]. I hate it, but I understand it.)
I have to say, I’m torn on this one.
Language changes, and I’m all for that. If everybody understands what you mean, what’s the problem? Who am I, standing here at the fall equinox of my life, to shake my finger at you?
For me, it all comes down to poetry and nuance. How does it sound when the word hits my ear? And what does it mean, precisely and uniquely? Diversity adds richness to society and to language—we’re smarter when we can actually use “home” as a verb and know that “literally” can’t really mean its opposite. (That’s a distinction we reserve for “aloha.”) Our minds are richer when we can use our beautiful language with subtlety.
Am I wrong? Does it matter? I welcome your thoughts.
Caveman photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.
Pigeon photo by Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.