linguistics and lexicography Love English

It’s funny the way people see things differently…

The noun way (plural ways) is one of the most common nouns in English, as evidenced by corpus-based frequency lists. There are about 990 instances per million words in the British National Corpus (as compared with the most frequent noun time, with 1,635 instances).

One very frequent sense of way is sense 1a) in Macmillan: “the manner or style in which something happens or is done”. Typical corpus examples are:

Disraeli also had complaints about the way that the government had conducted itself in India.

“The make-up was a disguise because I hated the way I looked,” she said.

It’s disgusting the way they treat their customers.

In all these sentences, way can be glossed as ‘manner’ or ‘style’. For present purposes I’ll call this sense 1.

Leaving this aside for a moment, consider the distinction between ‘lexical’ and ‘grammar’ words (aka ‘open’ and ‘closed’ classes) in English. It is well-known that the ‘closed’ classes – traditionally prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and determiners – rarely open their ranks to admit completely new members. Yet these word classes are not as cut and dried as they seem, and there are a few words, normally thought of as predominantly ‘lexical’, that could usefully be added to the lists.

The noun way, lurking in the shadowy borderlands between lexis and grammar, is one of these. In some of its many senses, it behaves just like any ‘grammar’ word and has the same functions.

Here I want to focus on just one of these ‘grammatical’ senses, where the form is always the way. I have chosen this sense because it is largely neglected in the online dictionaries, as well as in large reference grammars like the corpus-based Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Longman 1999). One or two of the major learner’s dictionaries include it, though it is often hard to find; the fullest definition is in COBUILD (sense 10).

Let’s call this sense 99, to contrast it with the ‘lexical’ sense 1 above. Some examples from ukWaC:

I hate the way people talk of the divide between Durham students and people who live in Durham!

It is disgusting the way these girls prance around in their knickers on the cover of FHM…

It’s wonderful the way the students give up their free time to help our children.

“I like those shorts,” said Susan. “I think it’s nice, the way everyone wears shorts now.”

Some people might feel it’s cruel the way Bill Sykes kicks his dog.

At first glance these sentences look much like the sense 1 examples, but they are quite different. In sentence 8, what people feel is cruel is not the manner or style in which Bill Sykes kicks his dog, but the fact that he kicks his dog at all. You could turn the sentence around and say That Bill Sykes kicks his dog is cruel, whereas you cannot switch the order of sentence 3 and declare: *That they treat their customers is disgusting.

Sense 99 of way can be understood in terms of the general characteristics of ‘grammar’ words:

– The form the way is fixed: determiner the + singular way. There is no adjective before way (since this would change the sense to sense 1, I think).
– The way has very little independent meaning. You can often replace it with that or the fact that (fact being another common borderlands noun).

Moreover, this sense is very similar to Macmillan’s sense 5 of the indisputably ‘grammar’ word how: “used for referring to a particular fact that you want to mention” (my emphasis). The examples include Isn’t it strange how no one ever mentions his name nowadays? You could replace how with the way here without a change of meaning.

There are several other ‘grammatical’ senses of way (and no space here to explore them), but this aspect of its meaning is rarely made explicit. How can we account for this apparent neglect?

Perhaps it is because we take the whole grammar v. lexis distinction for granted. We like contrasts, demarcation lines, clarity. So we tend to see way and how as falling on either side of a clear divide, whilst failing to notice that in certain contexts they are interchangeable.

But maybe it’s time to stop regarding word-classes and categories as sacrosanct, and accept their essential fuzziness and overlap, their elusiveness and ineffability. This approach may not make teaching or learning English any easier, but it certainly makes language look more like life.

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Gill Francis


  • Great post (again), Gill. >>maybe it’s time to stop regarding word-classes and categories as sacrosanct, and accept their essential fuzziness>> Yes to that. Word classes work fairly well most of the time, but (just as with birds or pieces of furniture) there are prototypical members of each word class, and others that are a long way from the prototype. So ‘dog’ or ‘house’ are prototypical nouns; ‘go’ (as in: ‘It’s your go’) is less so, but still behaves quite like a noun (e.g. ‘After three goes I gave up’.); ‘think’ (‘I’ll have a think about it’) might be technically a noun but really this is a fixed phrase; and ‘way’ in your sense 99 is barely a noun at all. And that’s without even consdidering the category ‘adverb’: manner adverbs like ‘slowly’ are prototypical, but just about any word that doesn’t fit other categories is dumped into the class ‘adverb’ . What we do with this information is another matter, as dictionary-users have an expectation that every word will have a word class label.

  • I’m a little bit confused here, because ‘how’ could also be used in sense 1 – the lexical sense of manner or style. In the first examples you might say: Disraeli had complaints about how the government had conducted itself in Inda. The make-up was a diguise because I hated how I looked. It’s disgusting how they treat their customers.
    But perhaps this further supports your point of no fixed categories rather than contradicting it?

  • Shivaun – You are quite right and not confused at all. The two senses of ‘way’ (‘method’ and this ‘fact’ one) are exactly mirrored by two of the senses of ‘how’ – ‘how’ means 1) ‘method’, or ‘manner’ as in your reformulations of the ‘Disraeli’ block of examples, and 2) something like ‘the fact that’ in the second block of examples. I originally said this but then had to make cuts and it somehow got left out. Sorry about that. The thing is that ‘how’ is always categorised as a ‘grammar’ word, whatever it’s doing. As for ‘way’, it behaves like a prototypical noun when it means ‘method’ – it is often plural, and there is often an adjective or other modifier before it. In the ‘Bill Sykes’ examples, on the other hand, the form is fixed – it is always ‘the way’. Incidentally, I’m not really saying there are no fixed categories, rather that it should be the behaviour of a word that determines its word-class, not any pre-conceived ideas about its ‘basic’ class membership. As Michael said, ‘way’ in this more grammatical use of ‘the way’ is barely a noun at all. But we still think of it as somehow fundamentally a noun (probably because in most of its other senses, it is a noun). We don’t have the same problem with other word classes: for example we have no trouble saying that ‘up’ is an adverb in ‘I give up’ and a preposition in ‘up the hill’. The ‘noun-ness’ of nouns is more deeply entrenched.

  • Gill, your reply to Shivaun makes it all even clearer! I thought I was way clear after your original post, but set myself to thinking more about it after Shivaun’s comment; now, I see that confusion comes from an expectation of what a word is supposed to do: the expectaion is the problem, not the word.
    As for ‘up’ being an adverb and a preposition, what about the new Volkswagen Up!? Spelt U-p-!. Is that, Volkswagen adjective, Up! noun?

  • “Some people might feel it’s cruel the way Bill Sykes kicks his dog.”

    I feel it’s strange the way people misspell Bill Sikes’s surname.

  • You’re right Terry, it is strange. Gill copied the citation directly from a corpus, where the name was misspelled; but I see that the Wikipedia article on the character starts: “William “Bill” Sikes (sometimes Sykes) is a fictional character in the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens”. A Google search for “Bill Sykes” brings up instances of both spellings (while “Bill Sikes” just gives the correct one). So it’s obviously a frequent misspelling but I wonder why this should be; perhaps because Dickens chose the less common form of the surname for his character?

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