There is a certain adverbial pattern composed of "[NOUN] and [NOUN]".

We work day and night.

It's raining cats and dogs.

They're arguing / going at it hammer and tongs.

I've seen that "day and night" has a direct translation in many languages, so I assume this sort of adverbial phrase composed of nouns is not uncommon.

How do these phrases composed of nouns end up being used as adverbs? How do you analyse them? Is it a completely idiomatic structure, or is there some way to connect it to more regular grammar?

  • Even without "and", noun phrases that refer to times can often be used adverbially. E.g. you can say "We work nights", "I'm working this afternoon" or "I'm working that day". Mar 20, 2019 at 1:48
  • @sumelic I understand "day and night" figuratively, i.e. "a lot" or "too much", or "conscientiously".
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 20, 2019 at 2:01
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    'cats and dogs' can be viewed as a direct object. The others have elided prepositions, which happened as the conjunctions became idioms.
    – amI
    Mar 20, 2019 at 5:03
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    They're not adverbs. As AML says, "cats and dogs" is an idiomatic NP serving as direct object of "raining". The NP "day and night" serves as a temporal adjunct. The idiomatic NP "hammer and tongs" is a manner adjunct -- it describes how they are "going at it".
    – BillJ
    Mar 20, 2019 at 8:08
  • @sumelic, cp Ger nacht-s where the morpheme is not reflecting plural as far as I know; Funny enough, Tag und Nacht (idem) may be tag und nacht-s, showing that the colocation is lexicalized. Underspecification between case inflection and plural aside (its irking me to no end, Ger is similar, Wochentag, stunden "for hours", Tagebau) I'd assume that the tail of a list of nouns adverbialised by conjunction or preposition was interpreted as bare adjunct and split off. E.g. "without rest for a long time, 10, 12 hours a day, sometimes 14 hours*. Also cp cupotea, 1l milk, dollarswoth etc
    – vectory
    Aug 20, 2019 at 20:02

2 Answers 2


I'm going to answer your questions in reverse order.

Is it a completely idiomatic structure, or is there some way to connect it to more regular grammar?

While these individual examples are idioms, the basic principle is completely regular. Compare:

  • We work nights.
  • We work long hours.
  • We work weekends.
  • It's raining bucketloads.
  • It's raining ash.
  • It's raining men.

The last one is the only one where we can't just swap in another noun phrase without changing the syntax: this is a hint that "going at it hammer and tongs" is short for something like "going at it with hammer and tongs". In other words, it's shortened from a prepositional phrase used adverbially.

How do you analyse them?

In the first case, a NP is used adverbially to give a duration of time: same as "I slept all day" or "I was in Canada last week".

In the second case, an NP is the direct object of the verb "rain".

In the third case, a PP is being used adverbially to give the manner of the action.

How do these phrases composed of nouns end up being used as adverbs?

Different ways for different phrases, in the end!


Regarding constructions of this sort, you should take a look at Cooper and Ross's World Order paper. There are a range of principles that determine the order of conjuncts in these idioms.

  • 2
    Welcome to Linguistics! Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. Mar 23, 2019 at 18:02
  • 1
    The OP contained three questions. I provided a link for reference that goes into the analysis of such constructions. Others have addressed other aspects of the OP, but mine addressed a different one--the underlying basis for such doublets in English and other languages. It especially addressed the very last question--"Is it a completely idiomatic structure, or is there some way to connect it to more regular grammar?" I could try to provide a condensed version of the paper, if that seemed appropriate, but the Cooper & Ross paper is not very long. Mar 24, 2019 at 20:56
  • The issue is not length, it is self-containment. Beware the disease of link-rot, which tends to make answers like this useless. We assume that JL will live forever and vigorously maintain his web page, but still...
    – user6726
    Aug 20, 2019 at 19:07
  • Ha, the variability in "off and on / off and on" (mentioned on p. 64 [pdf p. 3]) is a particularly egregious case for me, because I always have to stop myself short of saying did you try turning it on and off again. I suppose there's a bit of prosody going ohn, but I don't think that alone is the reason.
    – vectory
    Aug 20, 2019 at 20:18

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