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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:

(1a) I work evenings. My husband works days.
(1b) Fridays I go painting in the Louvre. [Warning: the link plays a Queen song]
(1c) Alternating Thursday evenings, Zachariah watches “Community”.

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.

"Stressed is desserts spelled backwards!"

An example where I find "backwards" superior, conveniently located just outside my office.


*: 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).

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

Let’s start off the S-Series with a bête noire of the grammar grousers: anyways. It’s also the one dearest to my heart, because it reminds me of a time when I was in the thrall of the grammarati. I don’t say anyways anymore, but I used to. It’s the same old story; someone heard me use it, and claimed it was wrong. Scared that I would be perceived as a rustic, ill-grammared Pittsburgher, I went to some source and looked it up. There I found advice like this:

The form “anyways” is found in some dialects in the United States, but it is not standard English, and it should never be used in any situation where you want to be considered reasonably well educated.

That’s all there is to it.”

And so, cowed by the authoritative tone and by the dire prognostication that I would be considered uneducated, I sheepishly dropped the s. The worst part about it is that despite all of my subsequent education, despite knowing that these people are just blowing smoke, despite knowing that they know nothing about language, I can’t get anyways to stop sounding strange to me now. I now use anyway almost exclusively.*

The truth is that although anyways has a bad reputation (even Urban Dictionary has its top definition of anyways claiming it’s a misuse), there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it.

The historical source of anyways is as the adverbial genitive of any way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this regard, anyways is analogous to always (genitive of all way(s)) or sometimes (genitive or plural of some time). The difference is that for the latter two words, the genitive version solidly beat out the bare form. Alway is basically gone from English now, and sometime lingers on as an adjective in only a limited, often literary, role (e.g., there is a blog titled Life and Times of a Sometime Poet).**

For whatever reason, in the battle between anyway and anyways, the script was flipped and the base form took the crown. Anyways was for a while just as common as anyway; Google Books shows the two staying pretty close up to around 1860, when anyway begins its rise. There are examples of famous authors using anyways even after this point, such as Joseph Conrad in 1902, but society had by and large turned its back on anyways.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage cites the Dictionary of American Regional English to note that anyways is apparently strongest in the South and South Midland (both U.S.) dialect regions. That would explain my usage of anyways from my South Midland youth.

So is anyways acceptable? One might make the argument that anyways carries an informal tone, which is a fair point as far as it goes. But it would be unfair to claim that that makes it substandard; not only are many informal words perfectly standard, but also the relevant competitor anyway is informal in many cases as well. In the conjunctive usage, both words lend an informal tone that would generally seem out of place in formal settings. (1a) is fine to me, but (1b) is distinctly off:

(1a) Anyway(s), Mom, here’s a letter explaining my expulsion.
(1b) ?Anyway(s), Your Highness, I bring a message from the governor.

Some usages of anyway fit in formal settings, like the adverbial usage in (2) from a 1997 article in Forbes:

(2) But if the Japanese banking system does not change, many banks will die anyway. [from COCA]

Personally, I wouldn’t use anyways here, but I’m not a good adjudicator here since I’ve already mostly lost anyways. That said, I probably wouldn’t use anyway here, either. I’d rather go with all the same, which strikes me as a formal usage than either of the anyway(s) options. Anyways, I’m going down a bit of a tangent. The point is that condemning anyways for informality is missing the point, when anyway isn’t especially formal itself. The point, to quote the MWDEU, is this:

“None of the senses of anyways are standard contemporary English, but you should not conclude that they are substandard”

And that’s all there is to it.

Summary: There’s nothing wrong with anyways; it’s merely nonstandard. But a lot of people consider it an indication of poor education, so you may want to be cautious about using it if you are beholden to other people’s opinions.

*: I did use anyways in one blog post, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that.

**: Sometime, of course, remains standard for describing a non-specific time in the past, as in It happened sometime Tuesday morning, but this is not a meaning that sometimes is competing for.

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

It’s been a while between posts for me, so let me make up for it with one big one. Tucker Carlson (who Wikipedia tells me no longer wears a bowtie) got onto Sean Hannity’s show recently and declared that Michael Vick ought to have been executed for running a dogfighting ring.

(The backstory for the non-football-obsessed reader: Vick was a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons until the dogfighting ring came to light. He served 21 months in prison and filed bankruptcy as a result, and lost three years in the prime of his career. He’s since revived his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, and President Obama called the Eagles’ owner to commend him on giving Vick a chance to prove he was rehabilitated. It was this call that riled up Carlson.)

Eventually, word got back to Carlson that his position sounded a bit unwise, and he re-appeared on Hannity’s show to clarify that he does not actually believe what he had said. His clarification:

This is what happens when you get too emotional. I’m a dog lover, I love them and — I know a lot about what Michael Vick did — I overspoke. I’m uncomfortable with the death penalty in any circumstance. Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.”

Now, there’s a reasonable question to be asked here: should a man who claimed that Vick should never be forgiven, never even be given a chance to earn our forgiveness, be forgiven if he says that his hard-line stance was the result of saying something more than he mean to? Personally, I’m fine with forgiving Carlson, if for no other reason than that his Vick comments weren’t nearly the most offensively foolish things I’ve heard him say. (This willingness to forgive is part of why Carlson and I disagree politically.) I also have to give him credit for actually taking some blame; he didn’t claim he was taken out of context or that his opponents were trying to vilify him. He admitted that he said something that is not an accurate indication of his feelings. I have to offer my begrudging respect for that.

But not everyone is in a forgiving mood, and I’m sorry to say that they don’t all have a good argument for their intransigence. Specifically, Sherry Coven at Everything Language and Grammar has written a post complaining about Carlson’s use of overspoke, which she considers an incomprehensible coinage. She writes:

“Overspoke? I’m not sure what overspoke means.”

Really? Let’s pretend for a moment that we are back in third grade. If your education was anything like mine, the watchwords of reading class back then were context clues. When you encountered a word you didn’t know, you were supposed to look at the rest of the sentence, or the rest of the paragraph, and try to figure out what the word meant. So let’s try this with Carlson’s paragraph. First he says “I overspoke”, and then he says “Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.” That suggests to me that I overspoke means “I said something that was much stronger than my true position.”

And, as it turns out, Coven guesses that this is the definition that Carlson intends, writing “The most logical assumption is that he meant that he’d said too much.” Good job! But then, like a child who you’ve assigned an undesired chore will impishly stare at the necessary tools in affected ignorance, as though they couldn’t possibly figure out how this rake could be used to move leaves into a pile, she too feigns ignorance. I can picture her exaggeratedly throwing up her hands, showing how impossible it is to understand this new word, as she writes, “But in that sense, what was too much? Did he think that he’d used too many words?”

C’mon, Coven, stop playing dumb. If you’re really having trouble with this one, you have absolutely no business writing about the English language, and especially not doing so on a blog called “Everything Language and Grammar”. But let’s say you’re really, honestly trying and just can’t crack the case. In that case, our third-grade reading classteacher could offer a second plan of attack: if context clues don’t help, look the word up in a dictionary. Alas, that didn’t help Coven:

“This is yet another example of the disconnect that can occur between speaker and listener when the speaker makes up a word instead of using perfectly good veteran words that are part of the English language. Even dictionary.com, which has never met a non-word it hasn’t liked, doesn’t embrace overspoke (yet).”

Yeah, I checked on dictionary.com. It’s true that searching for overspoke doesn’t return anything. Instead, it asks if maybe you meant to search for overspeak. And when I told it that I did in fact mean to search for that, here’s what it told me:

O`ver*speak”\, v. t. & i. [AS. ofersprecan.] To exceed in speaking; to speak too much; to use too many words.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

If you’ll pardon another analogy, at this point I have to liken Coven to the fumblefingers in infomercials (pictured below).

Coven’s use of the dictionary seems akin to these fumblefingers’ use of eggs, ironing boards, and other everyday objects. She looks up an inflected form of a rare irregular verb — when any reasonable dictionary user looks up the infinitive form — and then gives up because she’d have to click on a link saying “Did you mean Overspeak?” in order to get to the definition.

But if she powered through these hurdles, she’d have seen that the word isn’t new; the copyright information dates it back to at least 1998. And a little bit more research (this time on Google Books) shows that it goes back much further. Here it is in a story from 1957. Here it is in a racist joke from 1910-1911. Here it is in a German-English dictionary from 1883.

And that still doesn’t bring us back to the inception of overspeak. The OED attests it back to the 17th century, with the definitions “to overstate or exaggerate, to make exaggerated claims for, to speak too strongly, to speak too much”. Hell, the OED even notes Carlson’s exact type of usage in a 2001 example:

“The three e-mails I received‥agreed that Falwell overspoke himself in the worst way.”

Coven closes with this thought:

“Carlson seemed to be making up a word in order to avoid taking responsibility for a radical opinion. Instead of saying I overspoke, he should have said what he meant—–whatever that was.”

The operative word here is seemed. It seemed to Coven that Carlson made up a word, even though a quick cursory search of Google Books or the Oxford English Dictionary (which, for crying out loud, is even having a free trial for the month) could have told her that Carlson was using a rare word in one of its standard meanings. But Coven’s too busy reprimanding Carlson to bother to see if he’s right. Mark Liberman, by comparison, initially guessed the same — that Carlson has invented a word in overspeak — but before writing a post about it, actually checked to see if his impression was correct. It wasn’t, and he ended up writing an informative post about the history of overspeak and its relationship to AAVE and Southern American English.

The lesson: never trust your instincts when you’re writing about someone’s speech. You’ll surely overspeak if you do.

I have something of a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It came out in my later college years and was awesome and useful, helping me keep in touch with old friends scattered at other colleges, organize meetings, and find people with shared interests. (“Hello, ludicrously attractive girl. I note that you list ‘The O.C.’ as one of your interests. As luck would have it, I’ve recently obtained the first season on DVD, if you’d like to watch it in my room.”)

Since then, Facebook introduced a bunch of features that effectively ruined the experience for me, from a feature that allowed other people’s farm animals to wander into my profile to a feature that allowed random websites to access information about me through my friends. But I still have a profile on there — rarely updated — because sometimes I have to use Facebook to access invitations or other junk that my friends have posted.

One of many exciting invitations I've received.

Oh, really? I can't wait to find out how much you think I'm worth, guy-I-think-I-knew-in-high-school.

I’m not the only one with these complicated feelings toward Facebook, of course; people who regularly use the site have far stronger emotions about it. And a common one of these emotions is the need to complain loudly about Facebook’s every last grammaticality issue.

When I was still on Facebook a lot, I remember people complaining about the fact that when someone hadn’t specified their gender, the system would say things like “Lenny Dykstra has updated their profile picture,” instead of his or her or some more awkward construction. A little later, the verb “unfriend” led to a disproportionately large amount of venom directed at social sites for creating a word that, really, they didn’t create.*

Now there’s a new complaint. Facebook has a “Like” button, which you can click to indicate that you like something, like a group or product. For instance, I just found out through this wonderful system that a friend I knew in Seattle a few years ago likes dried cranberries. (Me too, OMG!) But introducing a “Like” button introduces with it a linguistic quandary. What should you call it if you decide to not like something anymore? What if, for instance, your were disappointed with Taylor Swift’s new album and no longer wish to pledge your allegiance to her?

Well, Facebook has an “Unlike” button that you can press to stop formally liking something. That makes a lot of sense, right? Much like you might untie your shoes, unbutton your shirt, or unwrap your birthday present.

But oh no! Not to the grammar police! One fellow — a Yalie, I’d like to note — writes:

Mark Zuckerberg, ‘unlike’ is not a verb. At all.

And someone started a Facebook group to address unlike, writing:

Not wishing to be a pedantic f*cktard, so correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not), but surely the opposite of ‘Like’ is ‘Dislike’. ‘Unlike’ is an entirely separate preposition, meaning ‘dissimilar to’.

And Scott McGrew, a tech reporter for NBC Bay Area, registered similar displeasure with the word:

Once you click “like,” the button changes to “unlike.” But Merriam-Webster says “unlike” is defined as “a marked by lack of resemblance.” […] What Facebook should have used if they were looking to please the proper grammar-conscious is “dislike.” We contacted Facebook to ask about this egregious attack on English, fully expecting them not to comment. Or in Facebook-ese “uncomment.”

Alas, grammar police, your sirens are misguided. First off, I know that there is an extant form of unlike that is not a verb. But English allows for the same word to have multiple meanings, usages, and sometimes even different etymologies. My favorite example of this is mean, which has 12 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, in four different parts of speech. Multiple meanings can be problematic when they lead to ambiguity, but verbal unlike won’t get confused with adverbial unlike.

Second, dislike isn’t appropriate for this situation (a point that some commenters made on the Facebook group’s wall and here). Both un- and dis- are prefixes that can be put onto verb to mean “to stop or reverse”, so either unlike or dislike could mean “to stop liking something”. But dislike already has a verbal meaning that would introduce ambiguity; stopping liking something is distinctly different from disliking it.** If you’re really being conscious of word meanings, as McGrew claims he’s trying to be, you’d surely not want to use dislike so cavalierly.

Third, unlike predates Facebook. The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for unlike as a verb meaning “to give up liking; to cease to like”, complete with an attestation from 1761:

My heart is not in a disposition to love… I cannot compel it to like and unlike, and like anew at pleasure.

So it’s settled. I will unlike the next person I see disliking unlike.

*: First, Facebook uses “remove from friends” instead of “unfriend” or “defriend”, and it was their users (i.e., us) who introduced these words. Second, unfriend already existed (although it was rarely used) before Facebook, as in this 1659 attestation from the OED: “I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.” In fact, there are around 4,000 hits for unfriended in Google Books before Facebook’s founding in 2004.

**: As a Michael Jackson fan said when asked about Justin Bieber: “I don’t like him, but I don’t dislike him.”

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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