The Right Way to Say This

Most of the time I try to include only truly common errors in Common Errors in English Usage. I don’t want to create a huge volume like Merriam-Webster’s English Usage. Once you start including unusual mistakes there’s no ending to the task.

But in this blog I feel no need to be comprehensive or systematic, so I sometimes write here about language mishaps that I find interesting but which are not truly common. In addition, although I try to keep my main entries as concise as possible, here I’m free to ramble a bit.

One such uncommon error is “right away,” in a sentence like “in the crosswalk pedestrians have the right away.” You can find a few hundred examples by doing a Google search for “the right away.”

If you see someone at that side of your car at a stop sign and they were there before you, they have the right away. 
The car has the right away then the bike can proceed 
And if cars do have the right away, a pedestrian must wait until the street is completely clear of cars before they can proceed
i have a right away through my property for an access for the property behind me the owner of the property has given a gas company to travel across my land the right away to access a gas well.
I usually let the hikers going down have the right away.

The proper expression is of course “right of way.” Its earliest use is in reference to the legal right of someone to pass through a property on a specific route (a right of passage, so to speak—not to be confused with a “rite of passage”). The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765): “As if I have a right of way by custom over another’s field, the early custom is not destroyed, though I do not pass for ten years.”

The path or thoroughfare itself also became “the right of way,” and this usage was extended in the US to label the land acquired to build a railway, pipeline, road, etc.

We most often use it today to label our right to take precedence over others at an intersection.

It is possible of course, to use the sequence “the right of way” when these words do not form the traditional phrase we’re discussing here.
There was a debate whether guards should only give the "ready to start" or station staff the "right away" signal if the platform starting signal was clear.
 the plotline of the finale of the Right Away, Great Captain! trilogy is potentially of more interest to some fans than the music. 
When you contact us you speak to a member of the Right Away Clean team not an answering service
The existence of such oddities is the reason that merely counting the number of hits you get in a Web search engine does not tell you everything you need to know about the frequency of a phrase. Search engines disregard punctuation marks and other indicators of context.

Remember: if you are the first driver to arrive at a four-way stop, you cannot proceed right away—you have to stop first.

A side note: the literal meaning of the word “anon” in earlier days was “right away.” But people so often said they were coming “anon” when in fact they were delaying that the meaning changed to “soon” or even “later.”

See Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4, where Prince Hal amuses himself by causing Francis, the dilatory server at the tavern, to abuse “anon” in this fashion. The joke is that Francis is trying to convince the customer that he is coming immediately, but he never does. People who know only the later meaning of the word don’t get the joke.


Peter Belenky said...

The preposition "of" tends to be shortened to a schwa, particularly when the following noun begins with a consonant, viz. "man o' war" or "five o'clock." Sometimes it disappears entirely. "I have met him a couple of times" easily becomes "... a couple o' times." The end of this progression, almost universal today, is "a couple times."

Anton O'Masia said...

This is off topic, but it's easier posting a comment than sending mail. I'd like to draw your attention to a hilarious error that your site doesn't seem to cover: I refer to the common misspellings of the French (et) voila! (I can't get grave accents on my keyboard, sorry). So far I've seen, in various places on the Net, "... and wallah!". Also, once or twice, "... and viola!" Do a google search on walla and wallah and see if you agree with me that this one is common enough to address.

Tom said...

viola/voila is covered here: http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/voila.html