The S-Series, looking at words that may or may not have an s at the end, has been on something of a hiatus since February’s look at anyway(s). Today, let’s move the series forward by looking at backward and backwards. As with anyways, the OED reports that backwards is the adverbial genitive form of its “base” form backward, which is sort of a useless fact for me to point out without going into a bit of detail on what an adverbial genitive is.
The genitive is a grammatical case in English better known as the possessive case. If you were to write, for instance, “the child’s toy”, child is in the genitive/possessive case, and this is marked by the presence of the apostrophe-s at the end. Both in English and in other languages, the genitive case is bit broader than mere possession, which is why I call it by this more obscure name.* One of the additional purposes of the genitive in English — well, moreso in Old/Middle English — is to convert nouns and adjectives to adverbs.
In Old and Middle English, this was a productive system, and that created a variety of common Modern English adverbs, such as once (from one), whence (from when), or sideways (from side and way). As English has become less of a case-marking language, the productivity of this system has mostly been lost. The only remaining productive form of it that I’m aware of (and honestly, I wouldn’t have thought of this if it hadn’t been discussed in the Wikipedia article) is for habitual events recurring at specified times:
Backwards is similarly an adverbial form of backward, but the slightly surprising thing about that is that backward didn’t really seem to need it. The OED first attests backward as an adverb in 1330, almost two hundred years before the first attestation of backwards in 1513. Why, then, did backwards appear?**
Well, the key thing to remember here is that a language isn’t some top-down system that only creates words that there is a “logical” need for. My guess is that backwards may have appeared due to an increase in the use of non-adjectival backward that led some users to create a more clearly adverbial form based on the productive adverbial genitive rule, but looking that far back, it’s very hard to say.
Anyway, taking what we have for the back story for backward(s), what’s their current status? Mark Liberman had a well-researched profile of these words on Language Log a few months ago, and his two main conclusions were that:
- American English uses a higher proportion of backward than British English
- Both AmEng and BrEng use higher proportions of backwards in conversation than in formal writing
There’s one remaining point on usage, which Liberman doesn’t go into, and which I fear I can’t go much into at the moment either. Backward is both an adverb and an adjective, but backwards is arose as an adverbial genitive. So can backwards be used as an adjective too? Is (2), for instance, acceptable with the s?
(2) Jackson trained himself to say words in reverse order. His backward(s) mumbling disturbed his friends.
The OED says that this adjectival usage is obsolete, but I’m not so sure. I’ve found a couple of examples of adjectival backwards in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), such as (3). I don’t have the resources to get numbers on this, but they seem relatively rare compared to both adverbial backwards and adjectival backward.***
(3) [...] your prose is a tad flat, somewhat backwards, too working class.
I don’t know how I feel about (3). I think I would accept it in speech but change it in writing, which makes some sense, since (3) comes from a play. So it seems to me that there is a preference for backward in adjectival usages, but I don’t have good data to support this. This post is running long anyway, so let me leave it there and defer to you readers. Any thoughts on backward(s) are welcome, especially on adjectival backwards.
Summary: Backwards arose as the adverbial genitive of backward 500 years ago. In contemporary English, backward appears to be more formal than backwards, and backward is used more in American English than British English.
*: Wikipedia has a nice article discussing the span of the genitive in English and other languages if you’re interested in the full details.
**: Let me state the caveat right now that it could just be that backwards does indeed predate adverbial backward but that data sparsity makes them seem to have been temporally swapped. But that would be unexciting.
***: I know what you’re thinking: but Gabe, everyone knows that COHA and COCA have part-of-speech tags on their words, so you could just search for backwards.[j*] to get all the adjectival backwards, and compare that count to backwards.[r*] for adverbial backwards and settle the matter immediately. The trouble is that COHA/COCA were (I think) machine-tagged, and so there is not a single case of tagged-adjectival backwards even though there are clearly adjectival backwards like in (3).