Under Way vs. Underway

Here’s a word I can never seem to get comfortable with: underway.

Back when I first started editing for newspapers, I learned it was always two words. Or possibly one. Then I learned that whatever I had learned the first time was wrong. Then I learned that it was a style thing.

Then I learned that it was a dictionary thing. Then I learned it was a part-of-speech thing.

Then I learned that I had better look it up.

In the publishing industry’s two preferred dictionaries, underway is one word. But if you look closely, you notice a little “adj” next to it. This one-word form is an adjective and only an adjective. Therefore it modifies a noun. An underway process. An underway voyage.

But, really, how often do you hear it used that way? Rarely.

More often, you hear it in sentences like: The voyage is under way. The renovations are under way. But in these sentences, it does seem so much like and adjective that’s modifying a noun. It seems more like a sentence element telling us when something is going on.

The party is here.

The meeting is tomorrow.

The time is now.

The meeting will happen soon.

Now, to understand under way, you have to understand how here, tomorrow, now, and soon are functioning as adverbs.

Remember that adverbs don’t just modify verbs. They answer the questions when? and where? too.

(For more on that, here’s a podcast: http://www.grammarunderground.com/lesser-known-adverbs.html)

And if you look up here, tomorrow, now, and soon in the dictionary, you’ll see that they’re all classified as adverbs when they do this job.

So in The voyage is under way, unless the writer’s emphasis in on the adjective concept (an underway voyage), chances are it’s being used adverbially. And because dictionaries don’t list the one word form as an adverb, you have to use two.

And that, in turn, would explain why both the Associated Press Stylebook and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage’s recommend that you use two words in these senses.

under way -- Two words in virtually all uses. The project is under way. The naval maneuvers are under way. One word only when used as an adjective before a noun in a nautical sense: an underway flotilla.

So basically, it’s almost always two words. What did I think was so hard about that?


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2 Responses to “Under Way vs. Underway”

  1. You can take AP off your list; in 2013 they changed the style to "one word in all cases." http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/209551/ap-changes-style-on-underway-copy-editors-react/

  2. Steven Alper: Thanks for your comment. I had missed the AP style change from "under way" to "underway." I appreciate the link!