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Let’s continue the S-Series by talking about beside and besides. I’ve heard a lot of people kick up a fuss over these two, but having thought through their usage, I’m rather surprised. I don’t think a lot of native English speakers really confuse the two forms anymore. The two used to be pretty interchangeable, like toward and towards, but beside generally ceded its non-literal meanings to besides sometime in the 19th century.

Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to get good statistics on the prevalence of different meanings of a word, so I’m basing what I say here what the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and (to the least extent possible) my brain have to say on the matter. I’ve added corpus statistics where possible.

Next to: beside. The most literal meaning is also the primary meaning of beside in modern English. If you’re talking about physical positioning, you definitely want beside; the last attestation of physical-position besides in the OED is from 1440.

(1a) The purple couch beside the road
(1b) I am slightly concerned about the hungry tiger standing beside me.

Idiomatic nearness: beside the point. The “next to” meaning of beside is not limited to physical proximity; there are also idiomatic usages, the most prominent of which is beside the point. The alternative, besides the point, is rarely attested both historically and recently:

Adverb: besides. The OED reports that beside was once a standard adverb, but now it’s become obsolete in most of its adverbial usages and archaic in the rest. So use besides in sentences like:

(2a) Men? Sure, I’ve known lots of them. But I never found one I liked well enough to marry. Besides, I’ve always been busy with my work.
(2b) … lost her social position, job, and husband, and was broke besides. [MWDEU]

If you’re using it as sentence modifier, as in (2a), or as a clear adverb (i.e., without a noun following it (2b)), you probably want besides.

In addition to: besides. Now let’s return to prepositional usages. In modern English, the “in addition to” meaning almost always uses besides:

(3) There was no need to install additional software besides the game itself.

Beside used to be common in this usage, but it seems to have become rare in modern English (although I feel like it may be a common local variant in some places). I’ve found it only rarely in modern American writing, such as “Did Glenn mention anything beside the names I dropped?”, from COCA in 2002.

Other than: besides. A similar usage to the last one, again with besides as the primary modern form. Here I’m talking about using the word to mean something like “except”, as in:

(4a) Having been lost in the forest for days, I began to forget whether I’d ever eaten anything besides acorns.
(4b) Will Los Angeles ever be something besides a “suburban metropolis”?

Summary & caveat

So, in general, beside is used for literal and figurative nearness, and besides takes pretty much everything else (especially all other metaphorical usages).

That said, there is an important point here: each of the suggestions I’ve made above is still a bit fluid, since the distinct usages often didn’t start ossifying until the 19th century. Different usages and different people will vary on how much one form is preferred over the other. Adding an s in (1b) is straight out for me, but dropping the s in (3b) just sounds dialectal. And the further you go back in English, the more the usages will blend together.

Lastly, the promised caveat: it’s very hard to get clear data on the usage patterns of different senses of a word, so while I’m confident that these rules of thumb are accurate for my own idiolect, and fairly confident that they apply to standard American English, I’m not sure how well they reflect non-American Englishes. Use them at your peril.

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 time for another entry in the intermittent S-Series, which looks at words that exist both with and without an s, and tries to figure out what motivates the choice between the options. Today, we’ll look at toward and towards. (I wanted to make some sort of “untoward” joke here, but it’s not coming together, so let’s just jump right in.) Brian Clark at Copyblogger, in a post listing a bunch of warmed-over peeves, confidently informs us that

Towards is wrong in American English. It’s toward. I went 41 years not being sure about this one.”

(h/t Stan Carey) Unfortunately, Clark has replaced his 41 years of uncertainty with a foreseeable future of misplaced certainty, hardly a worthwhile trade. Toward is more common in American English, but towards is by no means incorrect. It’s simply fallen out of fashion in American English:

You can see it yourself. Towards used to be the standard, but starting around 1840, it began a major decline that has persisted to the present day. Toward gobbled up towards‘s usages, and is now about 3 to 4 times more common than towards in American English. (Interestingly, although probably coincidentally, this is approximately the inverse of the ratio that existed back in the 1800-1840 steady-state period.)

Does this make towards “wrong”? Of course not, no more so than the fact that large is a more common word than big in written English makes the latter wrong. Towards is less common, and perhaps even non-standard (given that it’s still appearing more often than huge in writing suggests that non-standard is an overstatement), but by no means is it wrong.

No, the more appropriate position to hold is that of Jack Lynch, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, who considers two forms interchangeable, or John Lawler, emeritus from Michigan, who finds the difference to be limited to an abstract sense.

Meanwhile, you non-American readers may be wondering what all this hubbub’s about, because towards is the clear standard in British English. But watch out; a time of troubles may be approaching, as it looks like the long dominance of towards may be coming to an end for you as well:

Toward has almost doubled its market-share in the last ten years. Just do me a favor, Brits, if you would: as toward becomes more common, can you not grouse about it as a pernicious Americanism? I’ll do what I can over here to get us to stop calling your towards wrong.

Summary: Toward is more common in (modern) American English, and towards is more common in British English, but neither is wrong. Use whichever you feel fits better in your sentence.

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]

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]

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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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