Don’t confuse “work” and “works”

The word “work” can be a verb or noun or even an adjective. This entry looks at “work” and “works” as nouns.

“Work” has several different meanings, but one of the most common is “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labour; toil” [dictionary.com]. In this sense it is an uncountable noun and has no plural form.

E.g.:
We have a lot of work.
We will start the work as soon as we have received the signed Power of Attorney.
The work involved 17 hours of lawyer’s work and 5 hours of translator’s work.

I find people commonly make the mistake of using “works” in this context – especially in sentences like the second and third examples above.

“Works” has a different meaning. It is used to describe construction or engineering projects.

E.g.:
There are traffic jams all over the city due to the road works in the centre.
Works on the bridge were delayed by 4 weeks due to bad weather.
The Works were signed off 6 months after the Completion Date.

So you should never use “works” to describe the work you do when you’re sitting at a desk.

“Works” can also be used to mean an industrial plant, e.g. Over two hundred people are employed at the works. It may be used in combination with other words, e.g. “ironworks”, “steelworks”, “gasworks”. In this sense the word has no singular form. However, you may say, e.g. “one gasworks”.

Earthworks” (uncountable) means excavation works in connection with a construction or engineering project. But an “earthwork” (countable) is a defensive fortification built into the ground, often of archaeological interest.

We also talk about e.g. “the works of a watch”, “the washing machine’s works” to describe a machine’s internal mechanism.

“Work” as a countable noun

“Work” is used as a countable noun when referring to works of art or literature.

E.g.:
A work of art.
Numerous new works of Picasso have been revealed by the artist’s electrician.
Pan Tadeusz by Mickiewicz is the most famous work of Polish literature.

Idioms with “works”

in the works – (informal) in preparation, e.g. Various amendments to the Act are in the works.
a spanner in the works – (informal) a problem, e.g. The appearance of new evidence has thrown a spanner in the works.
with the works – (slang) with the full range, with everything, e.g. Give me a hot dog with the works.
give somebody the works – (slang) beat somebody up, give somebody severe treatment, e.g. We took him out the back door of the bar and gave him the works.

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5 Responses to Don’t confuse “work” and “works”

  1. Sinagnanasuntharam Suthagar says:

    The explanation given on this page is really elaborate and clear and everybody can understand it very well. Thanks for your contribution.

  2. B Jones says:

    What about “He works very hard”?

  3. Danh says:

    Thank you for your detail explaination. It is really helpful for me. By the way, I still confuse using it. What should I use “work” or “works” when I’d to mention the papers, publications or studies in a field of computer science? I understand that in the heading we should use “Related Work”, but when I want to talk about several typical papers, what should I use: typical work is [1][2][3],.. or typical works are [1][2][3]…?

    Thank you a lot.

    • Danh – you can use “Related Work” or “Related Works” as a title listing various papers etc. If you use “work” you’re refering to the uncountable concept of work people have done related to the issue. If you use “works” you are referring to countable papers, studies etc that have been published on the issue.
      So – as regards you second point – I would say “typical works are” – because you seem to be listing publications.

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