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.”