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A Word, Please: Some words still place panic underway, or under way

No matter how many years I work as an editor, no matter how much advice I dole out in this column, some words will always scare me.

Perhaps it’s because they came to my attention early in my editing career, when I cowered at the base of a steep learning curve wondering how I’d ever scale it.

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Or perhaps it’s because these words are just hard.

Behold: “underway.” Is it one word? Is it two? Do you hyphenate it as an adjective? Or do you just need an advanced understanding of adverbs to master it?

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The answer (and this is why it still unnerves me) is: all of the above.

Here’s what the Associated Press Stylebook says: “‘Underway’: one word in all uses.”

Seems pretty straightforward, until you open an older edition of the AP guide from back in the days when I was first learning how to edit.

“‘Under way’: two words in virtually all uses: ‘The project is under way. The naval maneuvers are under way,’” the 1993 edition instructs.

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“One word only when used as an adjective before a noun in a nautical sense: ‘an underway flotilla.’” (Good thing they included that last bit. It came in handy when I was a reporter covering the underway flotilla beat.)

There’s the origin of my “underway” fear. The rug was pulled out from under me early on, and I’ve never quite regained my balance.

But the confusion doesn’t end with AP. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, which influences a lot of published writing, prefers “underway” as an adverb, but also allows “under way.”

It’s important to remember that adverbs aren’t just those “ly” words that describe actions. Adverbs are also words that give information about “when,” “where” or “in what manner.”

So when you say, “Preparations got underway,” you’re using “underway” the adverb.

Like AP, Merriam’s describes an adjective “underway,” which is the one you should use when you’re describing a noun such as the aforementioned flotilla.

But I’m guessing you won’t get much mileage out of that advice.

“Onetime” and “nevermind” scare me, too. Again, early trauma is part of the reason.

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In the past, I have confidently doled out the advice that “onetime” means “former” and “one-time” means having happened only once. I’m still kind of stuck on that distinction.

But, as I learned far too late in life, it’s not that simple. According to Merriam-Webster, “onetime” can be used in both senses: to mean “former,” as in a “onetime politician,” and to mean “occurring only once,” as in a “one-time event.”

Technically, you could hyphenate it if you wanted to. English punctuation rules give you the flexibility to make your own compound out of existing words, taking “one” and “time” to make “one-time.”

So just because “onetime” is in the dictionary doesn’t mean you can’t assemble your own compound “one-time.”

As for “never mind,” let’s just say it was late into my editing career that I learned you’re supposed to use the two-word form to mean “disregard.”

“Never mind the fine print.” I always used the one-word form. I even looked it up. And yup, it’s right there in the dictionary as one word: “nevermind.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t read the dictionary entry closely enough to see that the one-word form is a noun and only. Ever hear someone say, “Don’t pay him any nevermind”? That’s the noun form.

And according to my dictionary, that’s the only time it’s written as one word.

Two-word “never mind” seems so very wrong to me. It suggests the meaning “don’t ever mind” or “at no point in the future should you object to this.”

But when people say it, they usually mean “disregard,” which is pretty different from the sum of the two individual words. But neither Merriam-Webster’s nor Webster’s New World Dictionary sees it the way I do.

When you’re telling someone to disregard something, use “never mind.” I’ll try to remember to do the same.

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