Underway vs. under way

Under way is conventionally two words when it functions as an adverb or a predicate adjective (E.g., “The ship voyage is under way.”). It is usually one word, underway, when it is an adjective preceding its noun (E.g., “The underway voyage was interrupted.”). But English’s compounding impulse may eventually make underway the preferred term in all contexts. And in fact, many edited publications already use only the one-word form, even as a predicate adjective.


These publications buck the trend by using the two-word under way as an adverb and as an adjective following its noun:

The World Cup gets under way with an opening ceremony at Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka. [The Guardian]

On Capitol Hill this week, a serious debate is under way about whether to carry out an important part of the new Dodd-Frank rules for derivatives. [New York Times]

But other officials say that informal discussions are well under way. [Wall Street Journal]

But underway is gaining ground, sometimes in the same places—for example:

Authorities have been warning residents of the threat of asbestos as the massive Cyclone Yasi clean-up effort is underway. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Hawass said that an investigation is underway and that the “police and army plan to follow up with the criminals already in custody”. [Guardian]

Before the Olympic Games got underway, the odds of that happening were 4-to-1. [Wall Street Journal]

14 thoughts on “Underway vs. under way”

  1. The style guide for the Sydney Morning Herald actually says “under way”, but since they retrenched sub-editors at that paper and outsourced them instead, you do see “underway” from time to time.

    • Very true. I believe the English compounding impulse is one of the living remnants of the language’s Germanic roots, though it has been obviously diluted after centuries of French, Latin, etc. influence. That’s one of the most charming aspects of Germanic languages–and it helps keep them vital–so it’s a shame that so many English-speakers fight it.

      • Okay, since reading your comment on compounding, I’ve been more aware of compound words.

        You’re right – we do love to compound whenever possible in English.

        I guess I had simply not noticed just how many compound words we have!

        Any idea how many we have?

      • In recent years frontline and backyard have become single words but not back row or front yard. I don’t speak german but get the impression it is more consistent. English isn’t quite ready for passengersidedoor, although accepting hertofore and inasmuch has set the precedent.

  2. If it is one word, when spoken the accent should be on the first syllable, as in underwear, underground, underpowered, etc. This sounds ridiculous so I do my best to use it as a protest against undisciplined compounding. I noticed the television program The Good Wife – which spelt that way should have both the adjective and noun accented – was commonly referred to as The Goodwife with no emphasis on the ~wife. The graphic design of the logo resurrected the archaic term from the Crucible, curiously in a program about a witchhunt.

      • I believe it’s common in British English, along with “learnt”, etc. Of course it also has a homonym referring to a grain. By the way, I agree with Chris Rodda. Also I think it is useful to distinguish meanings in words like everyday. For instance, “We used our everyday china for the party” vs. “I try to exercise every day.” But I see everyday used very often for the second construction. The OED agrees with me, and makes a similar distinction in the use of everyone/every one.

  3. “Underway’, one word, is a noun and refers to a road or pedestrian tunnel passing under another road. “Under way” is an adverbial phrase indicating that something is in progress. Simple distinction. One of the top ten of misused words and most people (especially newspaper editors) don’t even know the error.


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