If you can’t be right, at least be consistent

Finish this sentence:

If you’re working toward a goal, but making slow progress, you still have_______

A. a way to go.

B. a ways to go.

If you do a Google search (which you don’t have to do, because I did it for you when researching this post), you’ll find a hearty array of linguists who prefer one version or the other of this little phrase. Everyday usage appears to be pretty evenly split, too.

In other words, either version is fine. Some will use “way.” Others use “ways.” Way people and Ways people can still sit down for a civilized meal together if they avoid this topic and just try to enjoy each other’s company. But we should all agree on one thing:

You can’t use both phrases.

You must choose.

You can’t do what the Wall Street Journal did on July 17 in this photo caption …

IMG_2165

… and then, in a headline on the facing page:

IMG_1668

Was this discrepancy intentional? Probably not; such profane crimes against nature rarely are. But no matter where you stand on the way/ways-debate-which-you-didn’t-even-realize-was-a-debate-and-probably-still-aren’t-completely-sold-on, one of these uses is wrong.

With the newspaper, it’s probably the result of two different copy editors, each with their own idea of which phrase is correct, so ingrained that they didn’t think to check a style manual or lean back and yell across the room, “Hey, Gus! Is it ‘ways’ or ‘way’? I don’t want some blogger nitpicking me on this one. I take internet criticism very seriously.”

For you, it’s different. For any individual writer, working on a résumé, cover letter, press release, business letter, admissions essay or other important formal document, this inconsistency would illustrate a lack of attention to detail. When using any word or phrase that has multiple accepted versions, commit to one version throughout, and double-check in your final read-through.

You may or may not be right, but at least you’ll be consistent.


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