July 11, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: toward or towards

Posted in toward or towards at 6:13 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

Tip: Toward or towards

A reader writes:

Toward or towards—you know where I’m going with this, yes?

Yes, I do. This comes up every once in a while—I was even asked whether ‘toward’ should be singular or plural (‘towards’), so let me start with that.

People, please, just because a word has an ‘s’ at the end doesn’t mean it’s plural. Only nouns (representing a person, place, or thing) can be made plural. ‘Toward’ is not a person, place, or thing! Oy. ‘Toward’ is a preposition. A preposition modifies a noun (or pronoun) and shows the noun’s relationship to another word in the sentence.

The pan is on the stove.

In this sentence, the preposition, ‘on’ shows the relationship between the pan and the stove (the pan’s on it). You wouldn’t ever say ‘ons,’ would you? Of course not. Prepositions can not be made plural.

So what’s up with ‘towards’?

Gosh, I don’t know—but it definitely isn’t plural. There are a passel of words that are associated with directionality which are formed by adding ‘ward’ to the base word. And these other words aren’t prepositions; they are adjectives and adverbs.

There’s backward, forward, outward, upward, downward, westward, skyward, and so forth. ‘Toward’ is probably from the same school.  While both forms—toward and towards—are acceptable and considered standard, those who speak British English prefer ‘towards’ and those who speak American English prefer it without the ‘s’—’toward.’  For American English-speakers, keep in mind—even if you like the ‘s,’ it is considered to be a very informal form, and ‘toward’ should always be used in our formal, scientific writing.

As for those other directional words, American English speakers generally eschew the ‘s,’ although some use it for ‘backwards,’ oddly. In British English, the ‘s’ is used for adverbs, but never for adjectives:

We’re going so slowly, that I feel we are going backwards.

Not believing in evolution is a really backward way of thinking in my opinion.

The simplest way to deal with this, for us, is to just forget about using the ‘s’ completely, and you will never go wrong.


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