November 5, 2009

Language Tips: Afterward or afterwards & Discrete or discreet

Posted in afterward/afterwards, discreet/discrete at 9:41 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Afterward or afterwards

I am going to buy a cup of coffee and afterwards, I am going to read your manuscript.

The traffic was heavy, so we barely moved forward.

The directions are backwards; you can’t get there like that.

The sun rose upward and dazzled in the morning sky.

Towards the end of the movie, we realized what was going to happen.

So what’s the story with these words, anyway? Can you use an ‘s’ at the end or not?

The first thing you might notice about these words is that they are all words associated with directionality-either in terms of time or space (e.g., backward, upward, forward, seaward, afterward). Furthermore, most of these words can function as either adverbs or adjectives; the exception is afterward which only works as an adverb.

These words can be spelled with an ‘s’ or without. When ending with ‘wards,’ the words can only be used as adverbs. The adjective form always ends with ‘ward.’

So which to use?

Both forms are correct; however, the form ending without a ‘s’ is viewed as more formal, and that is the form that we should use in our formal writing. You can’t go wrong if you end the words with ‘ward.’

Incidentally, please be careful not to confuse ‘afterward’ with ‘afterword.’ An ‘afterword’ is an epilogue to a work of writing. Similarly, a ‘foreword’ is a prologue and should not be confused with ‘forward.’

Tip 2: Discreet or discrete

I recently ran across this:

For the analysis, we divided the respondents into three discreet groups.

While it hurts to see this, unfortunately, this error is relatively common in our writing. The word the author wanted is ‘discrete.’

‘Discreet’ means prudent or judicious in one’s conduct.

He kept what he knew to himself, thinking that it was to his advantage to be discreet.

‘Discrete’ means separate or distinct.

When writing a scientific manuscript, you need to include five discrete sections: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions.

Both words have evolved from the same Latin word, discretus, meaning separated.

While generally ‘discreet’ is the more common word, in science and research, ‘discrete’ is more commonly seen.

If you have difficulty remembering which is which, think about the fact that the ‘e’s in discrete are separate by the ‘t.’ They are separate and distinct, in fact, two discrete letters.



  1. の弑す魂の said,

    very helpful tips, thanks

  2. Emmie said,

    I have a strong Ms-Smarty-Pants tendency so was surprised to realize the existence of “discrete.” Ms Smarty Pants hopes to make use of this useful information some day. I’m “bookmarking” your site and hope to become Ms Smarter Pants.

  3. Brian said,

    Am I just old-school? I take issue with your example sentence:
    “Towards the end of the movie…” as this is using the word “Towards” to begin a prepositional phrase. However, “Toward” should be used to begin a prepositional phrase:
    “Toward the end of the movie…”

    Hope my “old-school” comments help out a bit.

    • dlseltzer said,

      I wrote about this rather extensively about a year ago ( Your example is from a reader’s question which I tend not to edit unless there is an egregious mistake. However, while I recommend the use of ‘toward’ as many style guides do, both words, ‘toward’ and ‘towards’ are considered standard and can be used interchangeably. The difference in usage is largely regional.

    • dlseltzer said,

      ‘Most all’ is a colloquialism and, as such, it is appropriate for the WLUT, which has a casual tone. The use of ‘most all’ should be restricted to conversation and informal writing. If this were formal, the use of ‘most’ alone would be preferred. So while colloquial, ‘most all’ is not wrong. On the other hand, ‘very unique’ is absolutely wrong. As I have mentioned before, there are no degrees of uniqueness. Something is either unique or it is not. Something cannot be more unique, somewhat unique, kind of unique, or very unique. Unique does not mean unusual or rare; it means one of a kind and should be reserved for that use.

      As for ‘all y’all,’ I had not heard this expression before, but it is a charming reminder about the quirkiness of languages of different regions and how the language can add much color to the landscape.

      • Anonymous said,

        To your mention of “all y’all”: the correct way to address a group is “you”, but there is no distinction between addressing an individual or a group; this often comes up with waiters asking “Are you ready to order?” This lack of distinction has led to the use of “y’all”, which I find charming, and “you guys”, which I find repulsive (though not as awful as “you guys’s”). Both of these expressions arose from the need for distinction.

  4. Very well explained. Thank you. I do medical transcription every day and need somewhere to reference English words. You are now in my favorites!

  5. Bill Sardo said,

    I have a question concerning the use of the adverb “only” in Tip 1. There, our writer says, “… the exception is afterward which only works as an adverb” and “… the words can only be used as adverbs.” Shouldn’t “only” be placed after “works” and after “used” in those respective sentences? I learned–a very long time ago–that “only” should adjoin the word or words that it limits.
    By the way, in the first of these two items, we need a comma after the antecedant “afterward,” since what follows is a nonrestrictive phrase.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Where to place ‘only’ is the topic of an argument among grammarians that has been going on for centuries. Some say the words should immediately precede the word or phrase that is modifying, and so in the reader’s example, the writer should have written:

      … the exception is afterward which works only as an adverb

      … the words can be used only as adverbs

      Others think that it doesn’t matter where ‘only’ goes as long as the meaning of the sentence is clear.

      I am of that school. My goal is to communicate clearly; I’m not the grammar police (although I know it may seem like that sometimes). Even the great Fowler and Garner are on different sides of the fence on this (Fowler being the more liberal this time around).

      And for the same reason, I don’t adhere to the prescriptivist’s rule that a comma must precede ‘which’ and a nonrestrictive phrase as noted in the reader’s second comment. I’m with those who don’t worry too much about the distinction between ‘which’ and ‘that.’

  6. Emma Blanco said,

    I was helping my preschooler with her homework and got stumped with “afterward” vs “afterwards.” Thank you for clarifying. 🙂

  7. Teeka said,

    Thanks! Very helpful. Your information is just what I need. Great site! (not cite or sight)

  8. The reason for the confusion between discreet and discrete is actually quite easy to explain–and that reason is the nominal form of discreet, which is “discretion.” The adjective discrete does not have a nominal (i.e., noun form). It also does not have an adverbial form (so there is discreetly but no discretely).

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