The Grammarphobia Blog

Ongoing concerns

Q: I may be wrong, but I am irked by people saying “the investigation is ongoing.” I would say “there is an ongoing investigation” or “the investigation is going on,” but not “the investigation is ongoing.” Am I just plain wrong?

A: “Ongoing” is a legitimate adjective, and typically adjectives can be used either before or after the nouns they modify.

When “ongoing” precedes the noun (as in “an ongoing investigation”) it’s used as an attributive adjective. When it follows the noun (“the investigation is ongoing”), it’s a predicate adjective.

The second usage sounds like bureaucratese to us, and “continuing” or “in progress” would sound less stuffy than “ongoing.” But we can’t find any legitimate argument against this usage.

The adjective “ongoing” has this definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: “that goes on or is going on; continuing, continuous; that is in progress; current; proceeding, developing.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from an 1841 issue of the Dublin University Magazine: “Nothing better for the ongoing expenses of an establishment, than an attorney’s bills of cost.”

In Oxford’s entry for “ongoing,” all the citations are attributive uses: “this ongoing age” (1851), “a steady on-going thing” (1877), “his on-going cases” (1960), “prior or ongoing … infection” (1984), and others.

But elsewhere in the OED, in unrelated entries, we found examples of “was ongoing” (1991) and “is ongoing” (2003). In fact, “ongoing” is quite often used as a predicate adjective, appearing directly after a linking verb (like “be” or “seem”).

The vast majority of adjectives can be used either way—before a noun (as in “a surprising/unfortunate/historic verdict”) or after (“the verdict was surprising/unfortunate/historic” … “a verdict surprising/unfortunate/historic in its implications”).

There are exceptions, of course. Some adjectives always precede the nouns they modify (like “mere,” “utter,” “former,” “principal”). And a handful of adjectives invariably follow nouns, either directly or with a linking verb in between (like “asleep,” “galore,” “afraid,” “aware”).

But we see no good reason why “ongoing” can’t be used either way. Some similarly constructed adjectives (“forthcoming,” “outstanding,” “outgoing”) can be used either before or after a noun. We can say “She was an outgoing child” or “As a child, she was outgoing.”

The only complaint we can come up with against “ongoing” as a predicate adjective is that it’s not very elegant in our opinion.

Since you’re irked by this usage, you’ll probably be even more irked by two words derived from “ongoing.”

The OED has citations for the use of an adverb, “ongoingly,” and a noun, “ongoingness,” both recorded in the mid-20th century and mercifully uncommon. Here are the OED’s most recent citations for each of them:

Adverb: “I wonder what it must be like to be part of something ongoingly huge like a number-one sitcom” (from Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, 2009).

Noun: “Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness” (from an essay by the poet Mark Strand in the New York Review of Books, 1995).

If you’re being semi-humorous, like Nicholson Baker, or writing art criticism, as Mark Strand was doing, you can get away with “ongoingly” and “ongoingness.” Otherwise, we don’t recommend them.

But to be fair, “ongoing” was a noun before it was anything else. The word was first recorded as a noun in the 1630s, according to the OED, when it meant “the action of proceeding, developing or happening,” or a “continuing or continuous movement or action.”

Oxford’s earliest recorded usage is from a letter written by the Scottish clergyman Samuel Rutherford in 1637: “The Lord, who hath … stopped the on-going of that lawless process.”

There’s a plural form too. “Ongoings” is defined in the OED as meaning the same thing as “goings-on”—that is, “noteworthy actions, proceedings, or doings.”

The earliest use, as far as we know, is from 1673, when local records show that members of a school council in Paisley, Scotland, passed an ordinance because they were “moved by certain ongoings in their midst.” (The “ongoings” involved the sale of alcohol to students.)

This usage is still occasionally found; the OED has a 1999 reference to “ongoings at the eye clinic.”

But we’re partial to “goings-on,” which dates from the late 18th century. As Oxford notes, it “usually” implies censure of some kind. It can mean “questionable proceedings, extravagances, frolics.” We think that’s what the Paisley school council had in mind.

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