Moving toward correct usage
Last week, one of Copyediting’s Twitter followers asked, “Is it afterwards or afterward, towards or toward?” Let's find out.
The suffix –ward goes back to the Old English –weard, meaning “toward,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and comes to us from the Proto-Germanic –warth. It’s also a variant of the Proto-Indo-European –wert, “to turn, wind.” Clearly, –ward is not a newcomer.
Many modern English directional words are built with this suffix, including upward, downward, sunward, eastward, inward, and outward. In fact, writes the Oxford English Dictionary, –ward has been “added freely to nouns (including proper names) to form adverbs expressing directions, aspect, or tendency” since the 16th century.
Eagle-eyed copyeditors will note that sometimes these directional words end in s, as in towards, and sometimes they don’t, as in toward. The s forms are left over from the genitive singular inflection, which used to be created by adding an s or es to the end of words.
These days, American English has largely dispensed with the final s, although British English retains it. We’ll choose upward, downward, afterward, toward, and the like, while the Brits will use upwards, downwards, afterwards, towards, and so on.
Although American English prefers its directional words sans s, the s form is used to a lesser degree, and most dictionaries list them as variants.
The exception to this rule is backward. In American English, we use backward for the adjectival form, but we use either backward or backwards equally for the adverbial form. Chalk it up to the vagaries of language users.
So if your author is fond of the s form of directional words, stay your red pen. Just be consistent in the form used in a manuscript, and keep the backwards exception in mind. Even if the author chooses toward and the like, you can allow backwards as an adverb. Save the red ink for more important battles.
Which form do you prefer for directional words? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!