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Words, July 16

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Ted Bailey of Conway writes:

“Shame on you for writing ‘Arkansas has a ways to go' (‘Putting Wind to Work,' 2 July 2009). The article a refers to a single item, while ways seems plural to me. We might use some ways, a few ways, or the ways, but never a ways.”

He has a point. About the best I can offer in the way of a defense is to note that Random House, which devotes a whole column to the various meanings of way, says that when the reference is to distance, way “often” becomes ways.

I suspect Mr. Bailey would say that people often do a lot of things they shouldn't. In that case, I would have to fall back on my “looks funny” rule. I do this often, possibly more. When I look at “a way to go,” I tend to think of way as “a manner, mode or fashion,” or “a method, plan,” or “a characteristic or habitual manner.” To me, a way doesn't suggest distance as clearly as a ways does. Clarity counts.

Mr. Bailey also writes:

“When did the noun alternative become an adjective, when we have the perfectly good and correct adjectival form alternate? I know that in the perverse English that we use, we can have nouns as adjectives, but alternative as an adjective seems useless, even extreme, when we have a correct alternative.”

I tend to agree — I want to agree — but once again, a meddlesome dictionary gets in the way. It says that alternate and alternative are both used as nouns and adjectives. Apparently, they've been so used for a long time. But phrases such as alternative energy (which appeared often in the July 2 article Mr. Bailey refers to), alternative school and alternative society didn't come along until the early 1970s, according to Random House. It doesn't say why; things go in and out of style. I wonder when and why all these unnecessary plurals became fashionable — behaviors for behavior, profanities for profanity, etc.

In response to the question “What do you call a group of postal employees?” Brady Gadberry recommends “parcel.”

 

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