Tag Archives: anyways

What’s wrong with “anyways,” anyway?

One word that gets some people in a lather is anyways with an s. It’s illogical! Senseless! Illiterate! Etc. But none of them ever seem to bother looking up its origins and history. So, for those who want to know, I’ve given the details in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

In defense of ‘anyways’



“Anyways,” said Jess, “he—”

“Oh, please,” Margot interrupted, wincing and setting down her cup. “Please don’t say anyways. Any goes with the singular. Any way.”

I looked at Margot as though she had just denied the law of gravity. “It’s not a plural,” I informed her. “It’s a genitive. The genitive as an active inflection survives now almost exclusively as the possessive, which has in recent centuries had an unetymological apostrophe inserted, but you see it surviving in forms such as names like Johns and Williams and in words such as anyways – meaning ‘of, or by, any way.’ The loss of the s is due to the same reanalysis you’re making, which is not new but is not historical.”

“Well, I don’t like it,” Margot declared. Other people in the coffee shop peered over their papers to see if there was some conflict that might prove entertaining. “We don’t form new words that way, so to heck with the old ones that use that.”

“So you’ll be chucking out woe is me too?” I said, arching eyebrow and relaxing back.

“That doesn’t have any genitive on it!” Margot protested.

“No,” said I, “it’s a retention of the whilom dative. ‘Woe is to me.'”

Whilom!” Jess said. “I love that word. And I love that you said ‘whilom dative.'” She leaned forward and clapped her hands together. “Guess why.”

I paused for just a moment, then smiled. “Because whilom is dative.”

“Yes!” she said gleefully.

“You mean you date yourself by using it,” Margot said drily, then moistened with some coffee. Everyone else in the joint, sniffing the general topic, had gone back into hiding.

“That would be solipsistic,” Jess replied, and turned back to me. “Dative plural.”

“Right, of course, the most consistent case ending in Old English: -um.” Just to prove I was capable of even greater pretentiousness, I started in on Beowulf: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum…”

“Not hwæt,” Jess riposted, “hwile. Um.”

“It sounds more ho-hum to me,” Margot interjected.

“Now, don’t talk whilom speaking,” Jess said, smirking. Score one for the Jess. “A while is a time, and whilom – from hwilum – is ‘at times.'”

“But now it really means ‘at past times’ or ‘at a past time,'” I added.

“But why not just use erstwhile?” Margot protested. “It sounds more snappy.”

“You could,” I said, “erst being ‘first,’ just as it is in modern German. But whilom has more the air of sometime, I think, while, of course, bespeaking greater erudition.”

“Or pretentiousness,” Jess added. Hey, how come she gets to be the one who, while knowledgeable, comes across as down-to-earth? I didn’t want to play “good logophile–bad logophile” here.

But I ploughed on in usual fashion. “The tastes are different, too, even aside from the register. Erstwhile has the t stop in the middle, and that ers almost sounds like hitting the brakes before it. It also calls forth first by rhyme as well as the German connection. Sometime starts with a hiss, and calls forth a common word with its own implications – sometimes being used variously for ‘never’ and ‘almost always.’ Whilom is softer and rounder, a glide, a liquid, a nasal; a word to put a baby to sleep. For a while. To while away time. Why not?”

“There can be a voiceless glide in it, too,” Jess pointed out. “If you really say it as a wh word.”

“Which we whilom did,” I added.

“And you do from time to time,” Margot pointed out. “But, say, none of these words can be used just to mean ‘from time to time’ or ‘temporary, at whatever time.'”

“Naw,” I said, “I think we’re stuck with temporary for that. And momentary. And various phrases.” But I looked over at Jess and she had a heck of a glint in her eye. Her hands dived into her purse; there was a sound like a raccoon trying to escape a junkheap avalanche, followed by the prestidigitation of a small notebook, which Jess opened and thrust forth as though it held a pearl picked up off the sidewalk. Which was not too far from the truth.

“It’s obsolete, of course,” she said, her voice taking on a slight hush. “But revive it next time you want to say ‘temporary’ – or should I say ‘time-turning.'” We leaned forward to the lambent bond paper and pronounced the pencilled treasure that described its own transit in the English language: “Whilwendlic.”

Words I have tasted have from time to time been suggested by readers, and I have been remiss in acknowledging those who suggest them. I shall try to make a practice of acknowledging my muses. Today’s word was recommended by Wilson Fowlie.


Does this word sound wrong, uneducated, perhaps some recently introduced error? In fact, it’s older than its pair anyway, but only slightly. The s is not a plural; like many s’s that show up in odd places, and notably at the ends of family names (Banks, Woods, etc.), it’s a genitive, which is to say a possessive. In this case it’s an adverbial genitive, so meaning “of or by any way.” Compare always, besides, etc. There is no apostrophe because apostrophes on genitives are a newer invention. And the active uses of genitives have reduced somewhat in modern English.

But anyways! None of the preceding changes the fact that for many hearers anyways is slangier, more casual, and so on, and we have to proceed accordingly. Which way to proceed? The multiple ways available can be seen in the y’s, forking like Frost’s roads (though some might see them as the drain they insist the language is going down). In between they are echoed, truncated, by the w. A separate echo effect comes from the two a’s. Ironically for all that, the sounds aren’t repeated: the first a is a lower and laxer vowel than the second, and not a diphthong as the second is either. And the second y is part of that diphthong, whereas the first is [i] (or, for some speakers, more of a lax central vowel). Cap it all off with an alveolar buzz, and you will notice that the whole word is voiced. Not only that, it all happens towards the front of the mouth – except for the raised back of the tongue in the w. So there aren’t so many ways in anyways that you make sounds.

And whence come this compound’s parts? Germanic: the any comes from the same source as one (which one? any one), and way, referring first to a road or path, comes ultimately from an Indo-European root that has evolved to words in a variety of languages from Sanskrit to Icelandic for routes, travel, transporting, and vehicles.

When an “error” isn’t

This is the text of a presentation I made to the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Sept. 24, 2007. Certain parts were sung; you can guess which.

It ain’t necessarily so, no,
it ain’t necessarily so,
the things Strunk and White
want to tell you are right,
it just ain’t necessarily so.

Getting pissed off about grammatical errors is a favourite activity of a surprisingly large portion of English speakers. Continue reading