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In English we often say, for example, "he still has a ways to go before he's done." Is this grammatically correct?

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    Related question here. Dec 6, 2011 at 3:35
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    Ngram: "a ways to go" is reasonably common in American English (around half the frequency of "a way to go"), but rare in British English. I expect it would be considered ungrammatical in the U.K. Dec 6, 2011 at 3:44
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    @Peter: I'm afraid we probably do have to consider it "ungrammatical" (c'mon - it's a singular article with a plural noun!), but I think it's mostly seen as quaint and rustic. Like when a Yorkshireman says nowt instead of nothing, naught. More dialectal than uneducated, but ungrammatical nonetheless. Dec 6, 2011 at 6:25
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    @FumbleFingers, I don't agree it's "ungrammatical"; it's ordinary and common usage. wiktionary et al mark it as informal, but informal does not imply ungrammatical. Jul 30, 2013 at 17:07
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    @jwpat7: Well, yes - but I was really responding to Peter's point. You both being Americans, it's probably sufficiently common there even among competent/educated/careful speakers that you'd see it as "grammatical". I still think we (Brits) tend to see it as quaint, rustic, dialectal. Jul 30, 2013 at 19:13

5 Answers 5

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AHD4 has the following entry for ways:

ways n. Informal (used with a sing. verb) Variant of way. See Usage Note at way.

The Usage Note states, in part:

In American English ways is often used as an equivalent of way in phrases such as a long ways to go. The usage is acceptable but is usually considered informal.

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  • A comment on the dictionary entry--How would you use "a ways" (in the American sense we're talking about) with any verb, singular or plural? Its usual use is as a noun phrase acting as an adverb (e.g. "It's a ways farther down this road."), and I can't think how I'd ever use it as the subject of a sentence. Dec 6, 2011 at 20:44
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    @PeterShor I don't believe it happens very often. There is the following dialog from the play The Founders by Paul Green: "GOODY. Come, let's walk by the river, Austin. AUSTIN. A little ways. GOODY. A little ways is all I need."
    – D Krueger
    Dec 6, 2011 at 22:21
  • Very nice example. Dec 7, 2011 at 0:56
  • @DKrueger: That example doesn't really say anything, though, since we'd also say e.g. "three apples is all I need".
    – ruakh
    May 3, 2014 at 1:14
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As an idiom, the phrase seems well-established in the United States. As Peter Shor said, Ngram shows evidence of this. The Corpus of Contemporary American English gives me 138 hits for "a ways to go" and 193 for "a way to go". Many of these hits are from published print sources. (In the British National Corpus I get no hits for "a ways to go".)

As a native English speaker, I think "a ways to go" sounds fine.

EDIT: Also, see page 949 of the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

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    I'm British, and it doesn't bother me at all. I know perfectly well it's American, and I imagine most Brits do. But we don't mind talking like Yanks now and then - like some of us sometimes say "buddy" instead of "mate", even though we recognise that such things aren't really our Queen's proper English. Dec 6, 2011 at 6:14
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    We should note, though, that in American English "a ways to go" means something very specific. The hits for "a way to go" aren't really comparable, as the sentences will almost always be addressing something entirely different (e.g., "Is there a way to go to the store without passing any traffic lights?").
    – user13141
    Dec 6, 2011 at 12:10
  • @FumbeFingers: Do Americans really say 'buddy'? None that I know. Sounds like a movie thing to me. That is, as a call-name 'hey, buddy'...sounds not old fashioned, but from old TV shows like 'Leave it to Beaver'. As a noun...well, this all for another question.
    – Mitch
    Dec 22, 2011 at 0:25
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No, it is not grammatically correct - "a" is specifically singular, while "ways" is specifically plural.

(Of course, being grammatically incorrect does not prevent it being in common usage.)

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    Language evolves; headquarters used to be plural, but now I don't think anybody would object to "a headquarters". Dec 6, 2011 at 13:42
  • True, but ways outside of the context of this idiom is plural.
    – user11752
    Dec 6, 2011 at 14:06
  • Could downvoters please leave comments so that the answers can be improved?
    – user11752
    Dec 7, 2011 at 12:18
  • @PeterShor Not keen on the example of headquarters. A headquarters is a building or location of multiple people and multiple internal "quarters". One's "quarters" are where one is housed or works. It is not applied in the singular. One does not have a "quarter". Thus, it is correct to refer to a single central command location as a headquarters. Headquarters was never plural. If you NGRAM "headquarter", you will find a similar trajectory of usage to the linked NGRAM for headquarters, but far fewer count. Appears to be an alternative, not precedent. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/quarters
    – Mark G B
    Nov 15, 2020 at 19:32
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"Ways" is not the plural of "way" but a separate word with its own meaning. "Ways" means "a certain distance, not great, perhaps, but significant"; it is often modified as "a little ways," which makes it mean "a very moderate distance." The distance may be physical or figurative. "Ways" is singular, always seen as "a ways." On this understanding, your usage is grammatically correct.

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    How about: Their ways are not the same as our ways.
    – dcaswell
    Aug 28, 2013 at 4:09
  • Does this mean "means" is singular too? As in "Ways and Means Committee"?
    – Fixee
    Aug 28, 2013 at 13:50
  • @Fixee "Means" is indeterminate. It may be singular or plural. However, in this meaning, it is never used in the singular. The usage "Ways and Means" is equivalent in meaning to "One has the means to accomplish that", or "One has the resources to accomplish that" (Note that this usage of resource is also commonly only used in a plural form). While Wiktionary has the etymology as deriving from mean, it is not clear to me how or when it came to be equivalent to resources. Need a dollar? Already have a dollar? You have the means. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/means
    – Mark G B
    Nov 15, 2020 at 19:44
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"A ways" is just how some of us Americans talk and with never a second's doubt. Hear Harvard man EJ Dionne on NPR. Doesn't know any better.

Other Americans talk that way as a joke, to affirm hick roots or to be deliberately rustic as the English commenter notes.

Would one expect more, when some of use plural noun, "savings", as a singular subject? Not when many ads say something like this. "Buy one, get one free! Now that's a savings."

Many do the same with "an Olympics" meaning "games". People who talk that way are not nimble enough to say "these Olympic games" or this "Olympic game series" taking a singular verb because "series" is the subject.

What prompts these solecisms? Local composers of cheap advertisements. NPR announcers, who barring a few, are not all that educated.

For all their loud, hectoring, over-the-top ranters like Limbaugh and Bill Reilly apparently got some education along the way.

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  • Other than unfairly dissing the education of NPR commentators comparative to Limbaugh and Reilly, this is a useful answer. Not complete, but useful. I would advise you to verify the educational level of NPR commentators. I don't think you can validate "not all that educated".
    – Mark G B
    Nov 15, 2020 at 19:20

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