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Today’s (August 24) New York Times carries an article titled “Progress has seemed fitful for many at March” with the lead-copy;

“For Daniel R. Smith, 81, who attended the March on Washington in 1963, the country has a ways to go in realizing the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/us/a-time-to-return-to-and-reflect-on-the-march-on-washington.html?hp&_r=0

I was drawn to the expression, “the country has a ways to go in realizing the dream of Rev. King” because first, the infinitive article (a) doesn’t agree with plural noun (ways) in “a ways,” second, I’m unfamiliar with the case that “have a way to go” being used in the same sense of having a lot of work to do as “have a long way to go,” which I’m familar with.

Cambridge English Dictionary defines “a long way to go” as an idiom meaning a lot of work to do or improvements to make, but it doesn’t carry the phrase, “a way to go.”

Oxford English Dictionary carries neither “a long way to go” nor “a way to go.”

Google Ngram shows that usage of “have a long way to go” existed before / since 1840 and it is on a constant rise to a ratio of 0.000054% in 2007. On the other hand, the usage of “have a way to go” emerged in 1920, and its usage remains one digit low at 0.0000014% level in 2007.

Here’s my question:

Is “have a way to go” simply a shortened form of “have a long way to go”? If it is, doesn’t it get you confused with the other usages of 'a (the) way to go,' such as “If you wish, you have the way to go to college by getting scholarship,” “There should be a way to go in finding the solution.”?

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    Your hunch is correct. Take a look at Def #9 in this dictionary. One can omit long especially when way gets pluralized, though it is informal. – J.R. Aug 23 '13 at 22:46
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    I've certainly never come across that usage of plural ways in BrE, and hence it sounds strange to me, but "the country has a way to go" (with long omitted) would be perfectly acceptable and understandable. So perhaps it's primarily AmE usage. – TrevorD Aug 23 '13 at 23:32
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    One can say 'You only have a short way to go.' It doesn't sound as good to me without an adjective, better in the plural 'You have a ways to go.' – Mitch Aug 24 '13 at 17:43
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To your first question: yes and no. To "have a ways to go" could be an indefinite distance but on the short-side of distance; it could also mean an indefinite distance but on the long-side of distance. As to which one depends on further development of the thought in subsequent sentences.

For example, in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s in America, it was "a long ways" from the era of Jim Crow laws to the era of equal rights under the law. On the other hand, from the vantage point of, say, 2010, that "long ways" is considerably shorter, though we still have "a ways to go"--only not as far as we did in the 60s.

As for your example-sentences, I can only suggest they sound a bit stilted and unnatural, with the first one being worse than the second. The first would sound better as

"If you wish, you can go to school on a scholarship."

As for the second,

"There should be a way to find a solution"

seems to be a better-worded version, though the following might be possible:

"We have a ways to go in finding a solution."

Or,

"We have a ways to go to find a solution."

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