January 15, 2009

Weekly Language Usage Tips: toward or towards & very unique

Posted in toward or towards at 8:25 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

Tip 1: toward or towards

We are coming up to the February grant proposal deadline, and as you can imagine, lots of proposals are being passed around. Over the weekend, I was reading one, and the investigator used the word ‘towards’ fairly frequently. As I went through and corrected the word to ‘toward,’ I thought to myself that this might be a good topic for the WLUT. I decided to Google ‘toward’ and ‘towards,’ and was stunned to find a controversy about this usage. And an emotional one at that. Who knew?

Here are some of the distinctions that people made:

If the subject is plural you should use ‘towards.’ If the subject is singular, you should use ‘toward.’

If the sentence is referring to someone or something literally moving to some place, use ‘towards;’ otherwise, use ‘toward.’

‘Toward’ indicates a more of a sense of finality than towards (i.e., ‘toward’ refers to something that is inevitable, and ‘towards’ refers to something that can be changed).

‘Toward’ is concrete or grounded, and ‘towards’ is abstract.

When followed by a word beginning with a consonant, use ‘toward.’ When followed by a word beginning with a vowel, use ‘towards.’

When followed by the word, ‘a,’ use ‘toward.’ When followed by the word, ‘the’ use ‘towards.’

Use ‘towards’ when the journey is challenging and ‘toward’ when it’s a simple small distance.

‘Toward’ is static, and ‘towards’ is dynamic.

Use ”toward’ as a preposition and ‘towards’ as an adverb.

Americans use ‘toward,’ and the British use ‘towards.’

‘Towards’ is southern, and ‘toward’ is northern.

Use ‘towards’ with the third person and ‘toward’ with the first person.

‘Towards’ is substandard English, and ‘toward’ is standard.

‘Toward’ is formal, and ‘towards’ is informal.

Yikes! It’s enough to make my head hurt! But I’m ready to make a stand, and in doing so, I’m even going to defy H.W. Fowler (who was English by the way) who said, ever so poetically, about ‘towards’ and ‘toward:’

Of the prepositions the -s form is the prevailing one, and the other tends to be literary on the one hand and provincial on the other.

Here’s my (quite different) take on ‘toward’ and ‘towards:’

First, the two words mean the same thing, and are interchangeable. That being said, all the American Style Guides I could find (AP, NY Times, Chicago, etc,) said never to use ‘towards;’ only ‘toward’ is acceptable. I would go along with this for our formal writing. Even if you are perfectly correct using ‘towards,’ it’s not worth the chance of a reader viewing you as not well educated. The same usage holds true for backward(s) and forward(s) and other ‘ward’ words.

But all of this discussion reveals why I truly love language and its usage.

Tip 2: very unique

We’ve talked about this before, but it came up in a meeting earlier this week so I thought it was worth mentioning again. Something is either unique or not. There are no degrees of uniqueness. Something cannot be very unique. Something cannot be quite unique. Something cannot be more unique. Something cannot be less unique. Something is unique, or something is not unique; those are your choices.

Fowler and I agree on this one, although he is a lot harsher in castigating those who modify ‘unique.”


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