Tuesday, July 1, 2008

War of the Websters -- Wherein we examine disagreements between dictionaries

According to Merriam-Webster Online, the one-word underway is an adjective only. Their example: the odd-sounding the "underway replenishment of fuel." It’s two words when used as an adverb. Their example: “preparations were under way.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists only the one-word version and lists it only as an adjective. So it seems they're saying that underway can’t be used as an adverb and under way doesn’t exist.

Does this mean that Webster’s New World and Merriam-Webster disagree on whether it’s an adjective or adverb in “preparations were underway”?

Remember that, among their other jobs, adverbs answer the questions “when?” “where?” and “how?” So in “Finals were yesterday,” the word “yesterday” is an adverb. Merriam-Webster seems to think that the setup “preparations were …” calls for an adverb. Webster’s New World may be suggesting that it’s really an adjective.

Remember that adjectives can also go after (be complements of) the words they modify. That is, “tall” is an adjective in “the tall man” and in “the man is tall.” So is that what Webster’s New World is thinking?

We may never know.

Here’s some good news: American Heritage allows both forms – under way and underway – as both adjective and adverb. It prefers the two-word form, by the way. But, either way, if you now find yourself more confused than you were before you started reading (as I know I am), at least know that American Heritage will back you up no matter which form you use or how you use it.


Heather Hoyt said...

I'm beginning to wonder if I have ever used that word before.

Just want to mention that I was introduced to Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies when I took a revising and editing class last semester, and your book was one of the textbooks. Though you should know your book had become a textbook.

June Casagrande said...

A textbook, huh? If I'd known that would happen, I would have fact-checked the thing a little better!

Anyhoo, I thought to look up "underway"/"under way" because I remember when the official style changed at the Los Angeles Times community news supplement where I was city editor. The two-word rule suddenly changed to "we write it as one word now." So I suspected that dictionaries might disagree on that issue, but I didn't realize that I was bumping into such a hornet's nest.

Thanks for the note!

Joel said...

It seems perfectly fitting (or, if anything, an understatement of its worth) that Grammar Snobs would be used as a textbook. Something that strikes me is that, despite its more narrative structure, it's organization and the ease with which one can find things in it compare well with most grammars I've seen. Mortal Syntax works even better that way and I do, in fact, turn to both as guides.

For whatever it's worth (I'm fairly certain that the people who should hear this either aren't listening or don't care about my opinion anyway), I'm all for reference books and textbooks being fun, readable and well-written. If you wouldn't pick it up for pleasure, you shouldn't force it on others.

I kinda think we should start a campaign. Where's your publisher on this, June?

June Casagrande said...

I've been having trouble getting my publisher to return my calls ever since I launched my last campaign -- the one to make book royalties 120% of the cover price.

Just kidding. They're actually great.

Most importantly, though: Thank you!!


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