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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]

I haven’t done a series in a while, so I’m looking forward this new one about those words that exist both with an s at the end and without. Well, that’s not the best description, since that includes most nouns and verbs. I’m talking about the ones that people claim aren’t words if they have the s, or more rarely, if they lack it. Is it okay to say anyways, for instance, or will the careful speaker replace it with anyway? Is that menacing bear coming toward you or towards you? And was that last question beside or besides the point?

I’ll update the list below each time a new post in the series comes out, and if you have any requests, leave them in a comment on this post.

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]

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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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