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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]

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Stan Carey recently made one of those posts he does every once in a while that makes the rest of us grammar bloggers look like sputtering nimrods. I’m assuming that a substantial number of our readers overlap, but in case you haven’t seen his post, or haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (as I hadn’t for a while), let me strongly suggest that you go check it out.

The post is about non-literal literally, one of the most commonly cited signs of the linguistic apocalypse predicted by the grammar devotionals. But, as Stan shows, it’s far more complicated and interesting than that. Non-literal literally isn’t new (Ben Zimmer found it in the 1760s), and it isn’t restricted to the uneducated (Stan offers examples from Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others).

I’m going to quote out a few especially interesting parts of Stan’s post, but again, you really ought to read the whole thing. First, on the motivation for using non-literal literally:

Part of the problem, I think, is that people keenly want to stress the uniqueness, legitimacy, and intensity of their experiences. Guilty of little but enthusiasm and rhetorical casualness – not evil, or stupidity, necessarily – they resort to bombast and hyperbole.

On the fact that this path is hardly unique to literally:

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the contradictory use of literally “does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself . . . but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive”. As such, it is following a familiar path taken by words like absolutely, totallyreally, and even very, which originally meant something like true, real, or genuine.

Here’s his take-home message:

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it.

I’m with Stan. Honestly — and this may shock some of you who’ve been operating under the misapprehension that just because I don’t like prescriptivism that I am unable to distinguish better usage from worse — I don’t care for non-literal literally. I can’t find any examples of me using it in writing, and if I use it in speech, I believe I do so sparingly. My primary objection is that it strikes me as a poor word for the task; if you regularly can’t find a better way to intensify a statement than cheap hyperbole, you’re not a very effective writer. To get on a soapbox a moment, I find the overuse of hyperbole to be one of the most annoying stylistic shortcomings of contemporary writing, especially in Internet communication. This is a personal peeve about writing, so I don’t expect everyone to fall in line behind me on it, but it explains my personal dislike of non-literal literally.

The objection that non-literal literally conflicts with the primary meaning of the word is of secondary concern to me. This conflict is generally minor. It’s rare that one is honestly unsure whether or not the user literally did something, especially in speech, where intonation can clearly indicate the use of exaggeration. Furthermore, as commenter “Flesh-eating Dragon” puts it, “there are degrees of literality; it is not binary.” That makes it hard to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable usages of literally; should we, for instance, ban literally when it doesn’t adhere to its literal meaning of “to the letter”?

Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.

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]

A while ago, I was scanning through recent entries on a stolidly prescriptivist grammar blog. It’s a blog that I occasionally mine for grammar myths to debunk, and while there I noticed that they had switched off comments on all the posts.

If I may get on a soap-box for a paragraph, I can’t stand when an ostensibly informative blog doesn’t have comments. There’s no reason to think that a given blogger knows anything about the subject they’ve chosen to blog about. Leaving on comments is a sort of check-and-balance system, where readers can point out flaws in an argument, introduce new information, and debate controversial points. Sure, commenters at large blogs and news sites are often rambling imbeciles promoting porn sites or superficial political philosophies (see, among others, CNN’s commenters), but at small blogs — exactly where you need something to prove that the blogger knows what they’re talking about — commenters are usually informative, helpful, and insightful members of a small community (see, among others, this blog’s commenters). I just don’t trust bloggers who close comments, because they aren’t interested in learning the facts. They want you to hear what they have to say and accept it unquestioningly. That’s just not the way I think blogs should work, so I get a little cheesed when people turn off comments.

Anyway, back to that blog. It kept on parroting obvious prescriptivist canards that I couldn’t correct because I couldn’t comment. I’m an academic, so someone being wrong about something I know about really sticks in my craw. Luckily, there was one post — the “pet peeves” post — that still allowed comments, where I hoped I could explain the error of their prescriptivist ways. However, the comments for that post were moderated to exclude comments that, among other things, contain “overly negative language, or are not directly related to a pet peeve.” Drat!

I needed a back door, and conveniently someone had left a comment complaining about sentence-modifying hopefully:

Hopefully… It is an adverb, not a verb. It is not a substitute for ‘I hope’. It means ‘in a hopeful manner’ or ‘full of hope’.”

Exactly the sort of prescriptivism I’d like to correct. Hopefully doesn’t get used as a verb. No one thinks it does, except for the author of this awful post, who made the absurd claim that hopefully is “most commonly used” as a verb. Figuring that the commenter was just repeating the complaint from that post, I set the plan in motion by replying innocently:

“Who thinks ‘hopefully’ is a verb? I have never seen anyone use it as such.”

And the original commenter justified the claim with a reference to that post, just as I’d hoped.

I replied again, pointing out that the referenced post was nonsensical and linking to the post here explaining why there is nothing wrong with the sentential usage of hopefully. Sadly, the comment never got through! But in getting it rejected, I got the best thing I could have hoped for, the whole reason I was trolling in the first place. Check out this comment from the owner of the blog:

“The pet peeves page is intended to be a list of pet peeves–a list of things that annoy people–not a discussion about whether we agree, disagree, whether they’re valid, not valid, etc.”

What a marvelous statement of the prescriptivist position, right? It doesn’t matter if your gripe’s valid or if it makes any sense; what matters is that you’ve decided to be annoyed by something, and you want other people to change because of it. This is insane. It’s so insane, in fact, that I can’t even think of an analogy for it. But that’s the way prescriptivism works: you choose what’s going to make you angry, and everyone else is expected to play along.

I posted one last comment, which I am certain adhered to the restrictions. It didn’t get through the moderation, so let me go ahead and say it here: The thing that annoys me is when someone hangs on to an obviously incorrect and easily disproven belief about language, and forces it upon others. You could call it my pet peeve.

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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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