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This British article titled "Two stabbings near Crumpsall Park overnight in separate incidents just 200 metres apart" says:

He was taken to hospital with serious injuries. Police described his condition today as serious but stable.

In the second sentence, what does 'today' modify, 'described' or 'condition'?

If it modifies the noun 'condition', what's the part of speech of 'today'?

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    « In the second sentence, does ‘today’ modify ‘described’ or ‘condition’? » — Yes, absolutely. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 14 at 6:35
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    At least semantically, it's impossible for it not to be describing both. Not only did the description by the police happen today but that's also what his condition was today. Syntactically, I'd say it's ambiguous. It can be taken either way—or in its combined sense. It's easy to come up with sentences that are syntactically or semantically ambiguous. (They are cooking apples.) This seems to be one of them. Forcing it to be one or the other seems impossible. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 14 at 18:20
  • @JasonBassford The ambiguity of your example I think arises out of the fact that They is not known. – JK2 Aug 15 at 3:04
  • @JK2 Yes, but the source of the ambiguity is irrelevant in terms of the point I'm making. The ambiguity still exists. In one parsing, cooking is a verb; in the other parsing, cooking is an attributive noun. Every word is identical, yet semantics and syntax (grammatical units) change depending on how the sentence is interpreted. Without additional context, it's impossible to say which meaning is correct or, therefore, which grammatical function cooking serves. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 15 at 3:30
  • Then there's the sentence 'He shot wide', where it has been said that 'wide' is indeterminate between an adverb (cf 'He shot hard') and a resultative adjective (cf 'He fell flat'). This ambiguity, like OP's, doesn't pique most readers: the readings have very similar meanings. Jason's example, Chomsky's 'Flying planes can be dangerous', 'The window was broken' etc are perhaps more unsettling. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 15 at 18:58
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In the example today is a clause-level adjunct that modifies the entire clause:

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Words do not modify words; syntactic constituents modify other syntactic constituents. Do not get hung up on word order. Temporal adjuncts in English have flexible placement: they can come before, after, or at appropriate spots within the clause they modify. So today could be placed before police, after police, after serious, or after condition, and the sentence would have the same underlying grammatical structure.

If it was necessary to draw a distinction between the time of description and the time that the description referred to, then the sentence would have been phrased differently. Meaning is as vague as it's allowed to be in the context.

  • Thank you: this is of course the right answer. Misunderstanding how language works by posters who not only think that “parts of speech” are all that matters but who never got any further than Donatus’s never-dying Partes orationis quot sunt? Octo. Quae? Nomen pronomen verbum adverbium participium coniunctio praepositio interiectio in their second-grade language class, let alone modern lingustic studies w/the underlying bedrock of syntactic constituents, is a daily problem everywhere on this site. It’s ok to teach facile simplicities to seven-year-olds, but not ok to never teach more. – tchrist Sep 15 at 2:54
  • I have edited my answer to add two quotes where I don't think that today can be parsed as a clause-level adjunct. Could you comment on your view about the structure of these sentences? Paraphrased, they are "Mr. Vane's son is responsible for his condition today" and "In the future, our normal condition today will be considered disabled." – herisson Sep 15 at 4:46
  • @sumelic those are nice examples; condition today means something like "the condition that exists today*. Today still expresses temporal location, but is not a clause level adjunct. It modifies condition, and could be analyzed either as a prepositional phrase or as a reduced relative clause (I'd vote for the latter). – jlovegren Sep 15 at 19:25
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"Today" is an adverb modifying the main verb "described."

"Today" being used as an adjective is extremely rare. Examples of it being used as an adjective would be:

"The today look in clothing styles is..."

and

"That look is very today."

In a sentence like "I started a new job today" or "Today, I started a new job," which is how it's used in your sentence, it's an adverb modifying the main verb (i.e., the verb the subject performs in the main clause).

Here's a hint: If you can aptly move the modifier to both the beginning and the end of the sentence and have the sentence still make sense, it's an adverb as adverbs modifying the main verb can go either place, as well as other places, unlike adjectives, which always appear next to the noun they modify or after a linking verb.

In your sentence, you can move "today" to not just the beginning of the sentence and the end of the sentence and still have it mean the same thing, but you can also move it just before "described" and just after "described," the verb its modifying. To modify "condition," "today" would appear before "condition" as it, not fitting into any of the categories, is not a postpostive adjective.

  • Not all modifiers that can appear after a noun are postpositive adjectives. Prepositional phrases can be used in that position: for example, "on this day" can be used to modify a noun phrase, as in "his condition on this day". I have edited my answer to add two quotes where I don't think today can be parsed as an adverb modifying the main verb of the clause. – herisson Sep 15 at 4:44
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In the second sentence, what does 'today' modify, 'described' or 'condition'?

It modifies condition.

If it modifies the noun 'condition', what's the part of speech of 'today'?

An adverb.

Adverbs modifying nouns is a thing. (See pp. 42 ff. here for more details.)

Essentially, the described [obj.] as [adj.] is replacing the described [obj.] to be [adj.] construction where the referent of the adv. today is much clearer. We still want to be able to express the time of that state of being, so we just modify the noun directly with the adverb. People do it naturally and are easily and correctly understood and so continue to do it, even though we all 'know' from school that adverb(ial)s should 'only' modify verbs, adjs., and other advs.

  • If today’s weather and the weather today are the same, does that strengthen or weaken your argument? – KarlG Aug 14 at 9:43
  • Thanks for bring up the 2010 paper. Actually, I remember reading the cited paper quite some time ago. Problem is, CGEL (2002) written by the same authors classifies 'today' and 'tomorrow' not as adverbs but as pronouns. I don't quite remember if they'd had a collective change of heart since 2002, but if memory serves, the paper doesn't specifically say that they now think of 'today' or 'tomorrow' as an example of an adverb postmodifying a noun. If you've recently read the paper, do you think they reclassified 'today'/'tomorrow' as adverbs in examples like the OP? – JK2 Aug 14 at 11:35
  • Essentially, I'll tout, 'Police described his condition today' could be seen as a deleted version of 'Police described his condition as it presented today' with 'today' an obvious adverb. Deletions when acceptable can result in some awkward-to-classify relicts. (Of course, 'Police described his condition today ...' may also just be a rather unfortunate re-ordering of 'Police today described his condition ....) – Edwin Ashworth Aug 15 at 18:52
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    @EdwinAshworth Yeah, but there's no understood "presented". There is an understood state of being (equivalent to an understood "be" verb) that's what's actually getting modified by the today. Sum is wrong but still closer by trying to handwave it as a clipped prepositional phrase like as of today. – lly Aug 15 at 19:24
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    @lly: My point is that today's weather is clearly two nouns in a defined grammatical relationship. – KarlG Aug 15 at 20:17
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It is possible for today to attach to a preceding noun phrase

The attachment of "today" in that sentence is syntactically ambiguous, just as the attachment of a prepositional phrase like "on this day" would be syntactically ambiguous.

My first interpretation was the same as lly's: I felt like "today" modifies "condition" instead of "described". I suppose "today" could modify the clause, as jlovegren suggests, but I do not think that is the only possibility.

Here is an example of a sentence where I think it's clear that today is not a clause-level adjunct:

"I mean that Mr. Vane's son is responsible for his condition to-day."

(Mr. Crewe's Career, by Winston Churchill (not the politician), 1908)

This doesn't mean the same thing as "Today, Mr. Vane's son is responsible for his condition." In the quoted sentence from Churchill, the word today is not used to locate the time when the son is responsible; it is used to locate the time of Mr. Vane's condition. In other words, the meaning of the sentence is closer to "Mr. Vane's son is responsible for his current condition" than to "Mr. Vane's son is currently responsible for his condition."

Another example where today is not a clause-level modifier:

So, in the future, our normal condition today will be considered disabled.

(The Realities of 'Reality' - Part II: Making Sense of Why Modern Science Advances (Volume 1), by Fritz Dufour, 2018)

Obviously "today" in this sentence could not be functioning as a clause-level adjunct, because the clause is talking about the distant future.

And a third example, this time in a clause with a past-tense verb:

The situation today was not predictable a generation or two ago, and the future too is largely unknown.

(Youth On Religion: The Development, Negotiation and Impact of Faith and Non-Faith Identity, by Nicola Madge, Peter Hemming, and Kevin Stenson, first published 2014, p. 217)

Parts of speech

I think it might not have been a good idea to combine this question with the part-of-speech question.

The part of speech of "today" seems complicated. My impression is that it functions like a noun phrase that functions like a prepositional phrase. (Hopefully that's not incomprehensible.) Or perhaps it could be said to function as a pronoun "fused" with a preposition. Prepositional phrases sometimes function like adverb(ial) phrases, but I don't know whether there's anything particularly adverbial about today in your sentence.

Etymologically, today obviously has the form of a prepositional phrase: the first part is from the preposition to, and the second part is from the noun day.

The word functions like a noun phrase in sentences like "today is a good day", and it clearly has a deictic meaning: these facts support the categorization of the word as a pronoun. ("Today" can also be used as just a regular noun, but I don't think that use is relevant.)

Like the noun phrases "that day" or "the day I went on my trip", "today" can be used adverbially ("I saw the city [that day/the day I went on my trip/today]". Noun phrases used this way have been described as "bare NP adverbs of time" ("Bare NP Adverbs", Richard K. Larson). It's clear that there is no adverb or (explicit) preposition in the phrase that day, so if the usage is truly analogous, I'm not sure whether even this usage of today warrants classifying the word as an adverb or preposition rather than as a pronoun.

In the sentence "Police described his condition today as serious but stable," it does seem to be possible to replace "today" with the NP "that day" and get another grammatical sentence: "Police described his condition that day as serious but stable".

So I think that today is a pronoun in that sentence, but I'm not sure how to describe the syntactic function. It might involve a syntactic structure that is also used when adverbs modify nouns.

Your previous question about home seems relevant, as it touches on similar issues.

  • +1 for citing the Larson paper and mentioning the etymology of 'today'. Larson lists 'today' as an example of 'bare NP adverbs', by which term I think he really means "bare NP adverbials" since "adverb" is reserved for words, not phrases. So I guess the paper is in line with CGEL's classification of 'today' as a pronoun, not an adverb. CGEL doesn't care the function of 'today' when determining its part of speech. – JK2 Aug 15 at 3:49
  • @JK2 I believe it's time to re-examine the form vs function disjunct the CGEL school espouse. Also, there are those who use 'noun' etc to cover multi-word strings. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 15 at 18:48
  • You might like jovegren’s answer that it’s a clause-level adjunct that modifies the entire clause. – tchrist Sep 15 at 3:06
  • What's the difference in meaning between "he is responsible today for paying the bills", "he is responsible for paying the bills today" or "today he is responsible..."? Meanwhile in "Mr Vane's son" and "pay the bills" examples, the word "today" is itself ambiguous. It could refer to a single day (24 h), to a limited amount of time (for the time being/until circumstance change) or from this day forward (indefinite time). Whereas in the OP's post, "today" is more specific, it is closer in meaning to "this day". – Mari-Lou A Sep 15 at 6:05
  • @Mari-LouA: I think today modifies the clause when it comes at the start. When it comes at the end or in the middle, I'm not sure whether it could modify the verb phrase instead. The vague meaning of today seems to be possible with any use. – herisson Sep 15 at 6:41

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