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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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It was early Saturday morning and I had woken up in someone I’d never met’s guest room. With nothing better to do, and not wanting to wake them with my preferred morning activity of singing along to The Go! Team, I pulled out the ol’ laptop and went off in search of grammatical ranting, figuring that would be a nice silent activity.

It was, but just barely. For it was that morning that I found the perfect grammar rant, and it was hard to keep quiet with the confounding mixture of disgust and glee it created within me.

I knew from the title that it had potential: what I’m hating (grammar edition). It starts off, as you might expect, with the ABCs of grammar rants: ad hominem attacks, belittling, and contempt. The author lists 11 things she wants writers to get through their “very thick and probably misshapen skull[s]”. And, as you again might have guessed, some of these supposedly important errors are neither important nor errors. The first three are:

  1. putting punctuation outside quotation marks (non-standard but acceptable in American English, standard in British English)
  2. using anyways (discussed here; non-standard but grammatical)
  3. using alright (discussed here; standard informal English, reviled by a vocal minority)

It continues like this, with each piece of the advice also containing that trademark prescriptivist viciousness toward people who dare to have a different idea of English than the author does. The point that the author hopes to convey is that writing is — to borrow a phrase from Lynne Truss — a zero-tolerance business. She even makes it explicit at the start:

“Also, don’t give me any horsey about how you’re lazy or in a hurry. If you expect people who read your work to take you seriously, you need to extend them the courtesy of proper grammar. Unless you think your readers are stupid. DO YOU THINK THEY’RE STUPID? DO YOU?”

Strangely, this rapidly escalating castigation is quite nice by prescriptivist standards. Normally, a prescriptivist accuses someone making a grammatical error of being an idiot themselves, rather than merely mistaking their audience for idiots. But it still carries that no-tolerance attitude. Any error is indicative of a moral failing, of being discourteous to, if not contemptuous of, one’s readers. It’s a very common opinion amongst amateur grammarians. But like so many others, including Lynne Truss (who famously left out a hyphen in her book’s subtitle despite railing in the book itself about people who do just that), today’s author has a double standard about these errors. No tolerance for you, but for me, well:

“*Inevitably, there are dozens and dozens of grammar, spelling and punctuation errors in this post. If you email me to tell me about any of them, I will eat your face.”

And there was an update:

“Well, I called it. Spelled a word [grammar, no less –ed.] wrong in the title. If you were one of the exalted few who read this before I corrected it, consider yourself lucky. […] it will probably happen again tomorrow.”

That, unlike all the rest of the post, is a fair position to take: errors are inevitable, and while you must strive to avoid them, you’re never going to be completely rid of them. But in the post itself, the author declares unequivocally that any errors in a piece of writing are discourteous to one’s readers and a tacit insult to their intelligence.

It was this contradiction that made me think that the writer thinks I’m stupid, not the occasional grammar errors. (Errors plural, because there’s another one that I’ll get to in a moment.) I agree wholeheartedly in forgiving errors, because we all make them. I agree as well that editing and trying to minimize the number of errors in your writing shows that you care about what you’ve written and you care about your readers.

But errors are inevitable, and they come from many different sources. Some are from a writer’s ignorance of the standard forms of their language, some are from a lack of careful attention (typos and homophones especially), and some are due to differences of opinion in standard usage between the writer and the reader.

To sit there and paint all grammar errors with a broad brush, as indicators of a lack of intelligence or couth, and then to excuse oneself for the same thing? That’s simply illogical.

To return to the error mentioned above, it’s a particularly detested one — one, in fact, that I’m surprised didn’t make the list of 11 errors. I’ve helpfully bolded the mistake, which occurred in the middle of berating anyways for sounding childish:

“Unless your a Brit, in which case we’re all just staring at your teeth rather than listening to you anyway.”

Actually, wait. Maybe the author is right and errors like that really do show that an author thinks their audience is stupid. That would explain the belief that we would find a Brits-have-bad-teeth joke fresh 13 years after Austin Powers ran them into the ground.

It’s March 4th again, which means that it’s National Grammar Day again, which means that it’s time to dig through the archives again and pull out some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here on Motivated Grammar this year. And that is the only fun part about National Grammar Day for me.

If you’re new here, you might be surprised at that. “But Gabe!” you cry, “Aren’t you all about grammar? Wouldn’t you love a day celebrating it?” And my response to that question is a curt no. You see, I’m all about grammar and language and the like. Hell, I’m in grad school studying it. But when most people say they’re interested in grammar, they mean they’re interested in learning a set of rules. And the rules they’re trying to learn hold about as much relationship to English as runway models’ clothes hold to the clothes in your wardrobe. These grammar rules — or to be more accurate, myths — are viewed as signs of high culture and linguistic erudition, but the truth is that they are far from the truth, and are at best harmless.

At their worst, these myths serve as a means for those who shout the loudest to shut up those who meekly try to use the language. I’ve known many people who’ve sought to improve their grammatical knowledge, only to be dismayed by the sheer number of un- and counter-intuitive rules that met them. In fact, in my younger years I was one of them. For you see, I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class town, and I thought that one of the keys to class mobility was an impeccable command of the English language. (As Peter Gabriel put it in “Big Time”, I was stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out.) And that command, I thought, would come through the study of grammatical primers.

But like my failed attempt to master the rules of etiquette, my attempt to master the so-called rules of grammar too met with defeat, as I found myself unable to keep so many seemingly arbitrary rules in my head. And so I gave up and figured I could learn all I needed to know about the English language by observation of skilled writers and speakers. I spent some substantial effort in high school mimicking the speech styles of friends whose speech I admired, and the writing style of good authors.

Through it all, though, I kept entertaining the notion that I’d eventually know all the rules. And then, over the course of a couple years and a couple courses in linguistics, I came to realize that my very goal was a load of hokum. Yes, there are rules to English, like verb conjugation, or that adjectives usually precede nouns. But every native speaker already knows these rules. The ones discussed in the books, the ones I was trying to learn, they’re just nits to pick. And the nits aren’t even ones that correspond to any real form of English anyway.

If you want to know the rules of English, look in an English-as-a-second-language textbook, not Strunk and White. If you want to know how to use English effectively, read and listen to those whose language you enjoy and admire. Good English is constrained by rules, not defined by them.

But now I’m rambling, so let me stop that and move on to presenting the truth behind ten of these minor myths that people dress up as rules. I’ve included a brief summary of why the myth is untrue, but for the full story, follow the links:

There’s nothing wrong with anyways. Anyway is the more common form, but that’s a historical accident. Related forms always and sometimes are more common than their s-less companions, so clearly anyways isn’t inherently ungrammatical.

Nothing’s wrong with center around. Despite the claims that this usage is logically inconsistent, and that centers on is necessary, center around has been a valid part of English for around 200 years now. No reason to stop now.

There’s not just one right way to say something. Do you worry if the past tense of dive is dived or dove? Or do you worry about shined and shone? Well, a lot of the time there isn’t a single right or best way of saying it. As it turns out, a lot factors can affect the decision. And often it’s best to go with your gut feeling.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is always acceptable. The myth that it isn’t is the result of a half-baked argument John Dryden concocted in the 17th century to explain why he was a better playwright than Ben Jonson. He was wrong about being better than Jonson, and he was wrong about the prepositions, too. Unfortunately, three-and-a-half centuries of people have fallen for his myth.

“Ebonics” isn’t lazy English. Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English as linguists generally call it, isn’t a deficient form of English. It’s a dialect, or possibly even a creole, of English with its own distinctive and systematic syntactic, phonological, and morphological features.

Gender-neutral language isn’t bad language. Using words like spokesperson doesn’t harm the language, and doesn’t start us down some slippery slope where the word human will have to be replaced by huperson or something. Similarly, using they to refer to a single person of unknown gender is a usage that’s been going on for centuries.

Ms. is a standard and useful abbreviation. Sure, Ms. is newer than Mrs. and Miss, but it’s a standard title. It’s a good solution to the asymmetry that female titles depend on maritial status and the male title does not.

Jealous can be used to mean envious. Some people try to claim that jealousy and envy are totally distinct, but they’re not, and they’ve been used in overlapping senses since Chaucer’s time.

And a few myths from other blogs:

Non-literal literally is perfectly standard. This one’s a three-fer. Stan Carey, me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts, each inspired by the other, about non-literal uses of literally. All of us share the conclusion that non-literal literally has been used for years, by writers good and bad, and is here to stay. But the three of us disagree on whether or not it’s a stylistically good usage. I found this an interesting exercise in seeing how different descriptivists dispense usage advice.

A lot of what gets called “passive” isn’t really. Language commentators often denigrate an impersonal usage by calling it a “passive”, and demanding that it be converted to an active form. But lots of impersonal forms are active already, and there isn’t anything wrong with the passive anyway(s). Geoff Pullum explains the English passive over at Language Log.

Redundancy doesn’t make something ungrammatical or unacceptable. Stan Carey points out that English is threaded through with redundancy, so it’s clear that redundancy isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, given that we’re communicating with people who might not catch the full message (or be paying full attention), redundancy is often a logical thing to add to your language.

Lastly, if you want another 20 myths debunked (or another 20 minutes’ break from work), check out our Grammar Day mythbusting from 2010 and 2009.

[Update 03/04/2012: Another National Grammar Day means ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

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]

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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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