A ways off

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Dimmas

Senior Member
Russian
Hi.

Will you please tell me what does the phrase "A ways off" mean and why the indefinite article is used with plural noun in the context bellow.

A ways off, in the kitchen window of my house, you could see my mom’s outline standing at the sink, one elbow raised up and poked out sideways, her hand holding the outline of the telephone pressed to the side of her hair. Maybe watching us. Probably watching us.

Thanks in advance. Dmitry.
 
  • expenseroso

    Senior Member
    United States, English
    "A ways off" is a colloquial expression that means something like "some distance away." Occasionally you'll see it with the plural artical ("some ways off")... either way, it's just an expression that refers to a moderate distance.
     

    HistofEng

    Senior Member
    USA Eng, Haitian-Creole
    Also, I think I've heard this expression used in describing something "some distance away" in time too (not just space)
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    Hi.

    Will you please tell me what does the phrase "A ways off" mean and why the indefinite article is used with plural noun in the context bellow.

    A ways off, in the kitchen window of my house, you could see my mom’s outline standing at the sink, one elbow raised up and poked out sideways, her hand holding the outline of the telephone pressed to the side of her hair. Maybe watching us. Probably watching us.

    Thanks in advance. Dmitry.
    The meaning of ways here (and of way in the same sense) is "distance," which, as mentioned by HistofEng, can refer to distance in time as well as in space.

    Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, identifies ways as a "noun plural but singular in construction," which would explain why an indefinite article can be used with it. However, the etymology indicates that ways did not begin as a plural noun: "Etymology: Middle English wayes, from wayes, gen[itive] of 1way."
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I think this may be another example of a form that has fallen into disuse in England but continues in the more distant parts of the English-speaking world - such as Ireland and the US :) I know several people who would routinely talk of something being a ways off, some ways off, a long ways off when referring to either distance or time.

    It's a usage that I associate with those who say anyways rather than anyway - check the WR dictionary for relevant threads.
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    Is it possible that the "plural" usage is just a corruption of the genetive? A way's off?
    Perhaps that should be "Is it possible that the 'plural' usage is just a 'corruption' of the genitive? A way's off?" After all, the only changes that took place from Middle English to now are minor changes in spelling and pronunciation, from the old way of spelling the genitive to the new way, reflecting in this case the e having been dropped in pronunciation. That would hardly seem to fit anyone's definition of corruption--and makes me wonder by what reasoning ways can be identified as a plural (even if "singular in construction") at all.
     

    Arrius

    Senior Member
    English, UK
    The so-called Saxon genitive the king's ring was originally the kinges ring: the present apostrophe marks the missing e. The genitive of way would have been wayes and has gradually become ways. There are examples of this still in BE such as I needs must do the work myself. It is not to be confused with the plural s which came in with the French component of English. In Shakespeare too one reads "Go your ways". Such a genitive exists in German masculine and neuter nouns e.g. Geh deines Weges, from Wagner's "Siegfried", also meaning Go thy ways).
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The OED refers to the wayes->ways genitive in relation to several of the apparently plural ...ways terms, such as anyways.
    In relation to distance, it says:
    In a good, great, little, long ways, <and a ways> the origin of the use of ways for way is obscure. It might possibly have arisen from the analogy of phrases containing the adverbial genitive.
     

    coiffe

    Senior Member
    USA
    American English
    I think this may be another example of a form that has fallen into disuse in England but continues in the more distant parts of the English-speaking world - such as Ireland and the US :) I know several people who would routinely talk of something being a ways off, some ways off, a long ways off when referring to either distance or time.

    It's a usage that I associate with those who say anyways rather than anyway - check the WR dictionary for relevant threads.
    Pan, you're correct on this. In rural North Carolina you will find the same persons saying "a fer piece" as an alternate to "a ways off."
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I hear it as "ways".

    It was just a little ways down the road.

    It was a long ways off.

    (And real directions at a department store recently):

    Me: "Men's wear?"

    Clerk: "That direction a ways. Maybe half way down."

    Me: "So I should walk all the way down, and then walk back half way?"

    Clerk: "No, just walk half way down."

    Me: "How will I know when I am half way?"

    Clerk: "You'll see men's wear."

    (I didn't think he'd be interested in a discourse on tautology, so I just left it at that.)
     

    SuperChrist

    Member
    Chinese
    • Obama: Full Recovery "A Ways Off"
    a titile from news, what does a ways off exactly and originally mean? Is there any implication ?
    thanx
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    It means "in the distance" or "at a distance". It's a colloquial phrase, as far as I know, but very common and very understandable, at least in American English.
     
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    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Thanks for the note, TT. It is always good to find out which phrases are common and which are different. I've learned through this forum to examine my assumptions carefully. :) I truly appreciate hearing from speakers of other varieties of English.

    As an aside, I didn't mean to imply that it was standard American English. It is definitely colloquial but it is so commonly used that it is easy to find examples of it in printed media in American English:

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&rlz=1I7SUNA_en&q=%22a+ways+off%22&start=10&sa=N

    It can mean distant in time or distant in location. "Standing a ways off" is a common phrase in AE, for example, to mean that the person was standing a short distance away, close enough to see but far enough away to make conversation difficult or impossible.
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    In BE we say 'way off' to mean at some distance. If A asked B a question and B produced a wrong answer, and asked if he was right, A could aptly say 'way off', to mean far from correct.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    In BE we say 'way off' to mean at some distance. If A asked B a question and B produced a wrong answer, and asked if he was right, A could aptly say 'way off', to mean far from correct.
    This is the same in AE, too.

    As for "a ways off", I found a American English publication from 1891 railing against the use of "a ways off":

    http://books.google.com/books?id=IKygAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA306&dq=%22a+ways+off%22+idiom&ei=76MiS97HNJv-lATX5o3JCw&cd=1#v=onepage&q=%22a%20ways%20off%22%20idiom&f=false

    It has been around for a good long time, to use another expression.
     
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    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Today's posts have been whisked onto the end of a previous thread on the same topic.
    If you look above you will see that this expression has been around for a long time and is in current use in parts of the UK.
     

    LV4-26

    Senior Member
    Hello,

    Just to mention I've found a ways used at the end of a sentence, but I guess that doesn't change its meaning.

    I've read off the coast a ways in some document and found quite a few google hits for the whole phrase (though none from the UK but that's understandable in view of the above discussion).

    I came across it a few minutes ago while reading (and listening to) a transcript of ATC (= Air Traffic Control) conversations.

    This is one controller speaking to another about a specific aircraft.
    He said 230 tonnes. He's got to dump some fuel. I'll get back to you with an update on it. He's going to go down south. I'll take him out down off the coast a ways.
    I understand all the rest (mayve even better than you do since I know the whole context :)). The only thing I'm not quite sure of is the final words.

    Can you please tell me if I'm paraphrasing it correctly ==>
    I'll take him south, some distance away from the coast (i.e.,so that he can dump his fuel safely).
    I take it down means south here.

    PS: I'm aware this is a spoken conversation (+ involving craft jargon), and as such, it's got its own particular syntax.
    Note: The speaker is Canadian, from Nova Scotia.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    He's going to go down south. I'll take him out down off the coast a ways.

    I don't have any problem with "a ways" - it's common usage in my part of the world. I'm less confident about the combination "out down off".
    I tried to work it logically, but gave up.
    The sense I get is that the air traffic controller is going to direct the plane on a route that is generally south but will take it some distance away from the coast so that he can dump the fuel over the sea rather than over the land.
     

    LV4-26

    Senior Member
    Thanks both
    I would take it to mean "I'll send him away from the coast and then take him south, paralleling the coast at a distance".
    That doesn't seem to match the local geography, as the coastline has a west-east orientation. So paralleling the coast would mean flying east- or westwards.
    [...]
    The sense I get is that the air traffic controller is going to direct the plane on a route that is generally south but will take it some distance away from the coast so that he can dump the fuel over the sea rather than over the land.
    That's what I understand as well.
    Given the geographical context (see my answer to James), that figures.
    And this is confirmed by what the controller says next (to the plane)
    Continue left, heading one-eight-zero. You'll be off the coast in about 15 miles
    Note: 180° means due South.

    Afterthought
    What strikes me as different from the sentence in the opening post is the way the phrase a ways is rejected at the end.

    Different, but not totally unfamiliar.
    This reminds me of a question I asked a few years ago about the following sentence. Context: the narrator is dreaming he's attending a boxing fight.
    The timekeeper's table was just along from me a way and he rang the bell [... ]
    This is from a British writer. You can see the only thing that changes is it's a way without the 's'.
     
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