Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Doctoral Dink Diagnosis: Negative

Anyone who found yesterday's post intimidating will find today's particularly interesting.

It has to do with the following question: In the sentence, "Preparations were underway," is "underway" an adverb or an adjective?

After checking two different dictionaries, I actually had a worse grasp on the matter than I had before I started. One dictionary seemed to assert that the job being performed is that of an adverb. Another seemed to suggest it was an adjective.

So I sought out the help of an expert and came to a truly surprising conclusion: Nobody knows. Not even the damn dictionaries. I kid you not. I wrote to Geoffrey Pullum, a professorly linguistical guy and one of the head heads over at

Unless my brain is broken (which is quite possible), Webster's New World and Merriam Webster can't decide whether "underway"/"under way" can be an adverb. ... Am I a dink?
Pullum's answer: Even the dictionary makers don't know. People would actually have to research how people use the term in order to figure out whether it really qualifies as an adverb or an adjective. But he puts it better:
Webster's seems to treat "under way" as an idiomatic preposition phrase, and "underway"(as in "The ship is now underway") as an adjective. Dictionaries are very bad at diagnosing adjectivehood and adverbhood in general; there are good reasons for being suspicious about whether they have it right. Investigation would be needed to figure out whether people are using "underway" adverbially now.
Check that out: "Investigation would be needed."

I hope that anyone who was a little overwhelmed by yesterday's post finds great comfort in that. I, for one, will continue flying high on my favorite of Pullum's comments:
You are not a dink. Whatever that is.

Ah, glory.

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