Etymology Usage

Does the mayor’s English have a ways to go?

Q: NYC Mayor Bloomberg habitually says things like this: “We’ll find a ways to do that.” Why?

A: You’re right. Mayor Bloomberg uses the word “ways” a lot, often in a surprising way. He’s especially fond of finding “a ways” to do things.

On his weekly radio show last summer, for example, he said New York State judges “should have found a ways to interpret the law … to accomplish what’s good for society.”

A Google search finds several dozen other examples.

Why, you wonder, is the Mayor using “a ways” here to mean a manner or method, when the singular “a way” would be appropriate?

He may be confused by a similar usage in which “a ways” is considered standard English: “The Mayor has a ways to go to balance the New York City budget.”

Here, “a ways” roughly means “a distance” or a “way.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “ways” has been used as a synonym for “way” in expressions like “a long ways off” since at least 1588.

“Such usage is standard American English,” the usage guide says. “In British English, on the other hand, it appears to have died out.”

Merriam-Webster’s notes that some commentators frown on the usage and label it colloquial or informal.

But the guide lists a half-dozen examples of the usage from American publications, including these two:

From a 1972 issue of Barron’s: “the downturn still has a ways to go.”

From Wilfrid Sheed’s 1973 novel People Will Always Be Kind: “Casey’s idea of fund-raising was quite a ways from mine.”

Not surprisingly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists this singular use of the plural “ways” as standard English without any qualification.

But the more conservative editors at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) add a caveat: “The usage is acceptable but is usually considered informal.”

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