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What are the parts of speech in this phrase?

exactly noon

Any dictionary will say that "exactly" is an adverb, and that "noon" is a noun, but I haven't heard of adverbs modifying nouns, so there's something fishy going on here.

My only faint hope is that "noon" might be some shadowy category like a determiner with a historically understood noun like "time", "hour" or "hours", but I can't find anything online to support this.

I'm looking for something that extends to all times of day, including "three o'clock" and "three twenty-five". I chose "noon" for simplicity.

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    Please could you give us the context? The whole clause containing this phrase? For example, in "at exactly noon", "noon" is the object of the preposition "at" in a preposition phrase which is an adverbial phrase qualified by "exactly".
    – Rosie F
    Aug 7 at 6:11
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    Adverbs can modify nouns, though the construction is subject to severe constraints. But adverbs freely modify NPs, and since "noon" is an NP consisting of just a noun, it seems OK to say that "exactly" is modifying the NP "noon".
    – BillJ
    Aug 7 at 6:27
  • @RosieF In a sentence such as “The color was exactly indigo” What does the word "exactly" modify? The auxiliary verb (was), "color" or "indigo" both of which are nouns?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 7 at 6:56
  • @gotube. So there you have it. "Noon" is an NP consisting of just a noun, and adverbs can freely modify NPs. It's really as simple as that.
    – BillJ
    Aug 7 at 7:38
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    @gotube In "it was exactly noon" ("nearly noon", "almost noon", etc.), one could argue that the adverb modified the verb. Aug 7 at 18:52

3 Answers 3

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I would still consider noon a noun (one that can by itself constitute an entire noun phrase/NP, so in this regard behaving more like a pronoun than like a regular noun such as day) in that context.

Related Linguistics SE post: Adverbs as NP pre-modifiers

In general, I believe many modern linguists consider it false to say that no adverb can modify a noun or noun phrase. (BillJ has left comments indicating that what's going on here is an adverb modifying a noun phrase.)

I found what looks like a relevant chapter "Adverbs, Noun Phrases, and Determiners" in the report A Lexicalized Tree Adjoining Grammar for English (The XTAG Research Group, Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~xtag).

The authors state

Many adverbs interact with the noun phrase and determiner system in English. [...] Although there is some debate in the literature as to whether these should be classified as determiners or adverbs, we believe that these items that interact with the NP and determiner system are in fact adverbs.

They in fact list exactly, but describe it in a way that doesn't seem to account for the usage with noon that you asked about:

the class of adverbs that modify cardinal determiners. This class includes, among others, the adverbs about, at most, exactly, nearly, and only. These adverbs have the single restriction that they must adjoin to determiners that are card+.

Based on the description of determiner features in the chapter "Determiners and Noun Phrases", the class of "determiners that are card+" (or positive for the feature "cardinal") seems to consist only of cardinal numbers such as one, two, three.... All other determiners, such as all, both, this, the, a/an are shown as "card-" in the table on that page. This analysis does work for examples like "exactly three o'clock" and "exactly three twenty-five".

I think other examples to consider are "I ran exactly a mile", "At almost exactly the moment when...", "at exactly that second", "at exactly the moment", "at exactly this time". Most examples I can think of do use a determiner of some kind (although contrary to the chapter, they are not exclusively cardinal numbers) and you I guess could consider the adverb to be modifying the determiner rather than the noun phrase (although that feels a bit iffy to me with "exactly the").

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  • Yes, but there is a difference between an adverb modifying an NP and an adverb modifying a noun.
    – BillJ
    Aug 7 at 6:30
  • I like your grammatical research; my own answer is not any criticism of it, only a simple complement.
    – Anton
    Aug 7 at 7:28
  • @Anton: Thanks, criticism is OK too if warranted :) I have no prior experience with this area of grammar so I'm just trying to figure out an answer to this interesting question
    – herisson
    Aug 7 at 7:46
  • Exactly, approximately, etc are often used with measurements, not just cardinal numbers. Noon refers to a time measurement. Of course outside whole numbers no measurement is exact; there is always some error even if it is small. But that doesn’t affect the grammar.
    – Peter
    Aug 7 at 10:42
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    I wonder if "at exactly noon" can be thought of as slang for "exactly at noon". Then there would be no mystery. This reminds me of "to boldly go where no man has gone before", which would get you a slap on the wrist at school (split infinitive).
    – MPW
    Aug 7 at 12:27
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It happened at exactly noon.

Adverbs can modify nouns, though the construction is subject to severe constraints. For example, A shortage of timber internationally led to an increase in prices, where the adverbial modifier is restricted to post-head position.

But adverbs freely modify NPs, and since "noon" is an NP consisting of just a noun, it is fine to say that "exactly" is modifying the NP "noon".

Consider also examples like: I like only fish, where the focusing adverb "only" is modifying the NP "fish". And He ate almost the whole pie, where the adverb "almost" is modifying the NP "the whole pie".

The times of day are NPs, so they too are freely modified by adverbs.

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    Is there any literature on the "shortage of timber internationally"-type construction that I could read for more information? I'm confused about how internationally can modify the noun shortage directly despite being separated from it by the prepositional phrase "of timber"; or should I actually understand internationally as being syntactically attached to the nominal (or N-bar, or whatever you call it) "shortage of timber"?
    – herisson
    Aug 7 at 7:21
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    @herisson The adverb is modifying just the head of the nominal. A clearer example is Industrial Action resulted in the withdrawal indefinitely of the vehicular ferry service. I recall that these examples came from Huddleston.
    – BillJ
    Aug 7 at 7:31
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    Thank you! With that help, I found the footnote in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar where that example is given (unfortunately, as a footnote, it doesn't seem to go into much detail...)
    – herisson
    Aug 7 at 7:41
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In everyday usage the adverb seems to be qualifying the verb to be, whether explicit or implied. The result is that we see what looks like a noun phrase.

Compare It is exactly noon with It is roughly noon
NP: exactly noon, roughly noon

The same usage applies to other verbs. Compare
It weighs exactly three grams with it weighs approximately three grams
NP: exactly three grams, approximately three grams

And it extends to the modifying of adjectives. Compare
*the flower is entirely red * with the flower is mainly red
Modified adjective: entirely red, mainly red

The adverb qualifies the state of being of the noun or of the instance of the adjective.

{I admit “Tentatively pragmatic, this is not exactly authority.”}

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    I wonder though if this works in sentences like "At exactly noon, the bell rang": you can't really put a form of be before exactly in that context
    – herisson
    Aug 7 at 7:30
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    "Noon" alone is an NP consisting of just a noun. And, of course, adverbs freely modify NPs, though rarely nouns (as opposed to NPs).
    – BillJ
    Aug 7 at 7:36
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    It's pretty hard to modify the meaning of be, given that in most contexts be has no meaning whatsoever and is just a receptacle for tense and grammatical person! Aug 7 at 12:47

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