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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Upward(s) and onward(s)

Recently someone asked me which was correct: "toward" or "towards".

Today the sternly reproving red squiggle of my mailer's spellchecker attempted to persuade me that my favourite, "towards" was "incorrect". But both "toward" and "towards" are correct in English. It seems that the British favour "towards" and the Americans "toward", but both are used on both sides of the Atlantic. When we researched the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we did a survey of Canadians and found, as is so often the case with Canadian usage, that they were divided about 50/50 between the two, perhaps with a slight edge for "toward".

In Old English, the adjective and preposition ended in -ward, a suffix meaning "in the direction of"; as in German, -s was an adverbial ending, so "towards" was an adverb, but even back then it was being used as a preposition as well, even by such people as King Alfred the Great. Of course, nowadays we no longer have an adverb "towards" at all; it is only a preposition. You cannot say "I didn't know which way to go so I went toward(s)." You have to go toward(s) something.

There are many words in this family: backward(s), forward(s), upward(s), downward(s), onward(s), heavenward(s), etc. Unlike "toward(s)", which is a preposition, these other words are adverbs -- he moved backward(s) -- but also adjectives, in which case only the s-less form is used -- a downward spiral.

This is what the OED has to say about the -ward(s) suffix
"In English the history of -wards as an adverb suffix is identical with that of -ward ; beside every adverb in -ward there has always existed (at least potentially) a parallel formation in -wards, and vice versa. The two forms are so nearly synonymous (the general sense of the adverbs being ‘in the direction indicated by the first element of the compound’) that the choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form."

The pronunciation of "toward(s)" is also interesting. An older-fashioned pronunciation is "tord(s)"; the much more common current two-syllable pronunciation was apparently looked down upon as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, as the OED, which included it only as the last of four possibilities when the entry was edited in about 1910, has this note: "[this] pronunciation is not recognized in any modern dictionary, British or American, nor apparently by any orthoepist; but it appears to be the prevailing one in London and the south of England."

"Forward(s)" is an interesting case. It is quite unusual for people to use "forwards" in the phrase "look forward to" (although I have a friend who does say "look forwards to", and judging by a Google search, he is not alone, though in a smallish minority).

And speaking of that word, may I vent my spleen against one of my pet peeves (I don't have many, but I do have them): the much overused phrase "going forward". Why can't people just say "In future"? Or, hey, just use the future tense of the verb?

Here's a cute thought: there used to be a word "fromwards" as well. Perhaps the thing to do when you find yourself in the company of someone who overuses "going forward" is to promptly move fromward(s)!

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.