A Ways To Go

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A reader wonders about the expression “to have a ways to go”:

I thought this was just a California quirk and a recent one at that, but I found it used by Dashiel Hammet in one of his stories, so it has been used for nearly a century. He was of course a California writer, so maybe there is a California connection, although its use seems to have spread nationwide.

Unlike anyways, which is viewed as nonstandard on both sides of the Pond, “a ways to go” seems to have achieved standard status in US English.

And while that particular phrase could owe its modern popularity to California-speak, the following OED citation in the entry for way in the sense of distance is dated 1588:

They..came vnto the gates of the cittie, after they had gon a good wayes in the suburbs.

[They..came unto the gates of the city, after they had gone a good ways in the suburbs.]

An OED note points out that the “origin of the use of ways for way is obscure” and that the usage is “now only dialect and U.S.”

The Ngram Viewer shows the phrase “a ways to go” in use as early as 1884, but its present popularity seems to have begun in the late 1960s.

The following recent examples show the phrase used in a variety of contexts to indicate that a person or entity has more work to do in order to achieve a desired goal:

Their disconnect on the immigration reform issue suggests the party still has a ways to go in bridging the gulf between the two.—CNN.

Ryan Mallett shows promise, but Texans QB has a ways to go—NFL site headline
Some scientists share better than others. While astronomers and geneticists embrace the concept, the culture of ecology still has a ways to go. —Michigan State University site.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 69 percent of Californians have broadband at home—a ways to go from the state’s goal of 80 percent by 2015.— Encyclopedia of Human Memory, 2013.

13 Years Later, Still a Ways to Go on Sharing Terrorist Threats With Public —National Defense Magazine.

The Navy has made great improvements in race relations, but we’ve still got a ways to go.—US Defense Department site.

IRS has a ways to go before meeting e-file adoption goal—IT site headline.
I think we have a ways to go as far as really explaining the value of the Common Core showing how data that is gathered is secure so parents don’t need to worry about that.—Superintendent of a Vermont school district. 

“A ways to go” has a more folksy sound than “a way to go.” It may also suggest that the remaining distance to be traveled is longer than what would be indicated by “a way to go.”

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10 thoughts on “A Ways To Go”

  1. Which is interesting. Over here in the UK it just sounds plain wrong and unidiomatic. Many US usages do find a home here, but this one will have a hard time!

  2. Born in 1948, I grew up in Indiana. The phrase “a ways to go” wasis prevalent throughout the Midwest and into the South. It expressed an indeterminate passage of either time or distance toward a specific end.

  3. I think the phrase is idiomatic in SAE. I wouldn’t call in non-standard, but informal. I’ve never heard or considered it to have any connection to California. The word *ways* so used is not, by itself, an idiom but simply slang. It has a separate existence, I think, as part of that phrase. To say, “you have a long way to go” does not sound wrong, but definitely sounds like something else– more formal and literal. Compare, “if that’s what you think, you have another think coming.” The noun “think”, meaning a specific thought, exists only in that idiomatic phrase as well. Idioms are…idiomatic, after all.

  4. Perhaps using “a ways to go” rather than “a way to go” is an unconscious way of avoiding momentary confusion with the expression “Way to go!” (i.e., “Good job!”). Additionally, the transition from “way” to “ways” in that expression — here in the U.S., at least — may have been influenced by the “s” in a parallel position in the similar expression “miles to go,” which Frost used so memorably in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

  5. I think “a way to go” is like a path … “that is the way to go” … whereas, “a ways to go” means a farness.

    As far as I can tell, it is standard in Am. English. It likely comes from one of these two meanings:

    *The timbers of shipyard stocks that slope into the water and along which a ship or large boat is launched.
    *The longitudinal guiding surfaces on the bed of a planer, lathe, etc. along which a table or carriage moves.

  6. @AnWulf: That is interesting. If the “ways” used in the idiom actually comes from a more specialized use of the term, as in shipyards or woodworking. it would explain a lot.

  7. It is worth remembering that ‘way’ was a specific term for ‘street’ or ‘road’, rather than a generic term for, route, direction, distance travelled etc. This is still used in street names in the UK (as is its cousin ‘weg’ in Germany), and of course in compounds such as highway, carriageway, railway, etc. In this context, a term such as ‘some ways to go’ would make perfect grammatical sense. It’s only a short step from this to the idiomatic ‘a ways to go’.

  8. ponder the difference in interpretation between these two questions while envisioning that you are in various circumstances:
    Do you have a way to go ?
    Do you have a ways to go ?

    very interesting site.

  9. Very interesting conversation above, indeed.

    I am pondering the one above:

    Do I have a way to go, as in: do I have some conveyance in which to get there?

    Do I have a ways to go, as in: is there still some distance to travel before I get there?

    I have been irked when my grandson used ‘ways’
    when I thought it sounded ungrammatical. Now I am rethinking and won’t mentally criticize his English, although I’m still “not sure” of using it myself.

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