In the sentence, "Preparations were underway," is "underway" an adverb or an adjective?
I stumbled across this question as I was comparing Webster's New World College Dictionary with Merriam-Webster Online to see whether lexicographers have reached a consensus on whether "underway"/"under way" is one word or two. They have not. Use whichever you prefer. (Los Angeles Times style prefers one word these days, but that's just because they're taking orders from Webster's New World. My 2004 AP Stylebook insists it's two words.)
In the process, I noticed that Merrian-Webster seems to assert that "underway's" job in the sentence is that of an adverb. Webster's New World seems to think it's an adjective.
Remember that adverbs aren’t just those -ly words that describe actions. They also answer the questions where? when? and how? So in the sentence, “Finals were yesterday,” the word “yesterday” is an adverb. Compare that to the sentence, “Finals were hard,” in which “hard” is an adjective. So does "preparations were ..." call for an adverb or an adjective?
I sought out the help of an expert and came to a truly surprising conclusion: Nobody knows. Not even the damn dictionaries. I kid you not. I wrote to Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz and one of the head heads over at LanguageLog.com. This guy actually co-wrote a grammar book. Not like my books. A good one. My query:
Unless my brain is broken (which is quite possible), Webster's New World and Merriam-Webster can't decide whether "underway"/"under way" can be an adverb. ... Am I a dink?
Pullum's answer: Even the dictionary makers don't know. People would actually have to research how people use the term in order to figure out whether it really qualifies as an adverb or an adjective. But he puts it better:
Webster's (New World) seems to treat "under way" as an idiomatic preposition phrase, and "underway" (as in "The ship is now underway") as an adjective. Dictionaries are very bad at diagnosing adjectivehood and adverbhood in general; there are good reasons for being suspicious about whether they have it right. Investigation would be needed to figure out whether people are using "underway" adverbially now.
Check that out: "Investigation would be needed."
I hope that anyone who finds grammar a little overwhelming finds great comfort in this news. I, for one, will continue flying high on my favorite of Pullum's comments:
You are not a dink. Whatever that is.
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