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Grammar Chaos: Learning Is Under Way (Underway?)—The Curious Case of the Compound Word with Two Forms

There aren’t many cases of a compound word having two forms, but when that stuff happens, it gets really difficult. For example: is it underway or under way? Nobody seems to really know.

Projects Underway

The word (or phrase) has long been the subject of conflict among grammarians, linguists, and other scholars of the English language. Right now, we know this: “underway,” the singular word, is an adjective. In other words, you use the singular form when modifying a noun. Here is the most popular use of the term:

  The sailor is on an underway voyage.

In simple terms, the sailor is on a voyage that is already happening. Underway in this case is used as an adjective modifying the noun voyage. As an adjective, underway means “occurring while in motion.”

Under way, on the other hand, is an adverb. We know that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, but other adverbs answer the question “when” and “where.” Here is an example:

  The sailor’s voyage is under way.

It has nearly the same meaning as its adjective form, but for formality’s sake, its official meaning is that “something is happening or going ahead.”

Simple enough, right? Not really. The dictionary doesn’t list the singular form of underway, so you’ll have to use the two-word form in all uses.

In 2013, the Associated Press (AP) updated their stylebook, saying that underway, in singular form, should be used all the time. This was in response to how the two forms were used by the AP from 1977 to 1990. Research showed that since 1990, the use of underway in its singular form is being used more.

What does that mean for everyone else? Not much, really. Both uses are still popular, so the best thing to do is use underway as an adjective, and under way as an adverb—unless, of course, you’re writing for the AP, or some other stylebook says otherwise.

Got any burning grammar questions? Any confusing conundrums? Shoot us a message, and we’ll see if we can help!


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