The Grammarphobia Blog

‘Underway’ or ‘under way’?

Q: I’d love to understand why it’s apparently now acceptable to cast “under way”  as “underway”—one word, not two. “Negotiations are underway” just seems wrong!

A: Yes, “under way,” an expression that began life as two words, is increasingly—and more popularly—being written as one. Today you can use either version and be in respectable company.

More and more standard dictionaries are recognizing the one-word version. In fact, two prominent American dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) now recommend “underway” exclusively.

The term began life as a two-word adverbial phrase composed of the preposition “under” and the noun “way.”

When first recorded in the early 17th century, the expression was used in a nautical sense. It comes from the Dutch onterweg (“on the way”), and was adopted into English at a time when the Netherlands ruled the sea.

A ship was said to be “under way,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was moving freely through the water as opposed to being anchored, moored, or aground.

The earliest written example in the OED is a seafaring usage from Richard Hawkins’s “Observations in His Voiage into the South Sea” (1622):

“The windermost shippe, by opening her sayle, may be vpon the other before shee be looked for, either for want of steeridge, not being vnder way, or by the rowling of the Sea.”

In later use, the OED explains, the term became broader. It was used with reference to other sorts of travel, as well as to anything in progress.

Again, the earlier citations use two words, as in this Oxford citation from Sacred Geography (1671) by Joseph Moxon, a printer and globe-maker:

“That night he went to Bethania, and lodged there…. And in the Morning again to Jerusalem, where under way he cursed the Fig Tree, which presently withered.” (The reference is to a passage in Matthew 21, where Jesus curses a fig tree that has no fruit.)

And this example is from a letter written in Paris by Thomas Jefferson in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution: “While our second revolution is just brought to a happy end with you, yours here is but cleverly under way.”

But by the late 1700s and early 1800s the one-word spelling “underway” was also being used, nautically and otherwise, as in these OED citations:

“We shall get underway in a jiffy, the pilot’s coming on board.” (From George Brewer’s novel The Motto, 1795.)

“As soon as the vessel was got underway, the captain discovered the money had been stolen.” (From a weekly magazine, Lady’s Miscellany, Nov. 16, 1811.)

“It was about day-break when the caravan got underway at Trebizond.” (From John Galt’s novel Earthquake, 1820.)

The OED has this to say about the spellings: “The one-word spelling has become increasingly common since the mid 20th cent. The two-word spelling continues to be recommended by most usage guides.”

Actually, that last statement is no longer true. Usage guides today either lean toward “underway” or leave the choice up to the writer.

For example, the fourth and latest edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) encourages the one-word spelling:

“In the phrases get underway (= to get into motion) and be underway (= to be in progress), the term is increasingly made one word, and it would be convenient to make that transformation, which has been underway since the 1960s, complete in all uses of the word.”

Jeremy Butterfield, in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), says the “mysterious gravitational force” that  earlier brought “any way” and other adverbial phrases together has been doing the same to “under way” since the 1930s.

With dictionaries at odds over whether to use one word or two, Butterfield says, it’s up to the writer to decide: “Follow your nose or your gut, whichever is the more prominent organ.”

Even 16 years ago, Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage noted that the term was increasingly written as one word, “underway.”

The editors of the 2002 edition added: “It is quite possible that this solid form will eventually predominate over the two-word form, but for the time being under way is still somewhat more common.”

Again, that last statement is now outdated. The NOW Corpus, a database of 5.6 billion words published in web-based newspapers and magazines between 2010 and the present, shows “underway” ahead of “under way” by more than two to one. As of this writing, “underway” appeared in roughly 112,000 articles during this period, compared with 45,000 for “under way.”

The growing acceptance of “underway” is no surprise. Virtually all other compounds formed with “under” are single words: “underdog,” “underage,” “undersecretary,” “underprivileged,” “underground,” “underfed,” “underdeveloped,” and so on. (The only exceptions we can think of are hyphenated adjectives occurring before a noun and beginning with “under-the-,” where the last element is “counter” or “table” or “radar.”)

You can also expect to see the “underway” version in many newspapers. The Associated Press Stylebook, widely used by journalists, had long recommended “under way” for “virtually all uses.” But since 2013 it has recommended “underway: One word in all uses.”

Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which had previously recommended “under way (adv.),” now has “underway,” without a label, in its fifth edition, published in 2015.

Still, if you prefer to use “under way,” you can do so with a clear conscience.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has “under way” for the adverb, “underway” for the adjective.

This brings us to the subject of terminology. When is this term an adverb, and when is it an adjective? On this issue, as it happens, chaos reigns.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels it an adverb in all uses. This is true even in examples like “the dance was underway,” where it looks more like a predicate adjective because it follows a form of the verb “be” and complements the noun.

In the other camp are three standard British dictionaries—Macmillan, Longman, and Cambridge—which regard “underway” as an adjective exclusively, even after the verb “get.” (All three spell it as one word, though Cambridge gives “under way” as a variant.)

Apparently those three dictionaries regard “get” in this case as a copula or linking verb, like “become” or “is.”

Webster’s New World, too, labels “underway” solely as an adjective, though it doesn’t give examples.

American Heritage labels “underway” as both adverb and adjective—spelled one word in both cases—but unfortunately it doesn’t give examples either.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, as we said, labels it both an adverb and an adjective, but with differing spellings. Its adverbial examples include both “gets under way” and “was well under way,” so in that respect it agrees with the OED.

The only adjectival examples in the Unabridged have “underway” immediately before a noun, as in “underway refueling.” But in fact the term rarely pre-modifies a noun; it almost always comes afterward, generally after a form of the verb “get” or “be.”

M-W likens the word to “afoot” when used adverbially, but “afoot” is generally a predicate adjective, as in “the game is afoot” or “a conspiracy was afoot.”

We would argue that in sentences like “The project was underway,” or “The project underway was a costly one,” the term is an adjective. In that first example, where it follows a form of the verb “be,” it’s a predicate adjective. And in the second, it’s an adjective that post-modifies a noun.

Whether or not if you continue to spell it “under way,” the term has graduated from its beginnings as only a two-word adverbial phrase.

After all, former two-word adverbial phrases like “under cover” and “on line” are now used legitimately as adjectives (and generally written as one word).

Finally, we’ve written before about the term “under weigh,” which originated as a variant of the earlier “under way.” The variant spelling is now accepted as standard, though it began as a misspelling due to an erroneous association with the phrase “weigh anchor.” (The verb “weigh” in the phrase means to raise or lift.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.