Monday May 24, 2004

Toward and Towards

Yesterday, a graduate student who's not a native speaker of English asked the grad student mailing list the difference between toward and towards. Somebody apparently (and incorrectly, in my opinion) told her that "it moved toward the target" was wrong, and she wanted to know what the s morpheme means. I wrote up a short reply that ballooned into a long reply, and I decided to compound my error by expanding it even more and posting it here.

For me, a West Coast US English speaker, toward and towards are in free variation. The s probably isn't a morpheme at all, in fact, because it doesn't carry any meaning. The alternation is not obviously phonologically conditioned, either. For example, there's not a rule like "toward before a vowel, towards before a consonant", although it might be interesting to see if toward is more common in contexts where the end of towards would form a low-frequency consonant cluster with the beginning of the following word.

This page claims that toward is more common in American English, while British English speakers use towards more often. Let's see if that's true. Applying Google to the problem (and adopting SC's modification of Geoffrey Pullum's proposal for Google-hit terminology):

"toward -towards site:uk":206 kGh
"towards -toward site:uk":3,370 kGh
"toward towards site:uk":107 kGh
"toward -towards -site:uk":14,100 kGh
"towards -toward -site:uk":13,800 kGh
"toward towards -site:uk":3,510 kGh
"toward -towards site:us":450 kGh
"towards -toward site:us":219 kGh
"toward towards site:us":90 kGh

This table consists of three groups. Each group includes a count of Google hits for pages with toward but not towards, pages with towards but not toward, and pages with both. The first group is for sites in the UK ("site:uk" means the URL has to end in .uk), which should correlate pretty strongly with British English. The second group is sites outside of the UK ("-site:uk" means the URL can end with anything but .uk), which most likely means American English, but also includes Australia, New Zealand, India, etc. To exclude these non-US sites, I've also included the third group, which restricts the search to "site:us"; however, this group has many fewer hits that you'd expect because that search also excludes most of the US Internet, which is in .com, .edu, etc. rather than .us. It's worth noting, too, that these counts are all very approximate—I've done all of them more than once, and they vary by as much as 10 percent from minute to minute.

It does appear that exclusive use of towards is more than ten times as common as exclusive use of toward in British English, but they're about equally common outside of the UK, and in .us domain web sites, toward is about twice as common as towards. Pages with mixed usage are always the least common.

So, boiling down this data to an oversimplification: if you use towards your prose will seem slightly more British to American readers, and less obviously American to British readers.

Bah, all this typing of toward and towards has triggered a word moment. Now they both look wrong.

[Now playing: "Cemetry Gates" by The Smiths (notice that it's spelled like Morrissey pronounces it)]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Interesting. I love "word moments." Who doesn't?

I wonder if we can say something is "toward", ie convenient, right. If we can't, how come we can say something is "untoward", ie inconvenient, inappropriate?

In fact, there are, as we must all know, many other "__ward" words: upward, sideward, backward, outward, and so on. The "__ward" suffix just means in the direction of. Of course, "toward" becomes "in the direction of 'to'"

"__ward" words are all both an adverb and an adjective. Except "toward" which isn't an adjective except when it's "untoward" (e.g. untoward behaviour).

Posted by: Rethabile Masilo at May 25, 2004 1:49:36 PM

They have different acceptabilities depending on the grammatical context. As a preposition those figures seem about right: I'm happier going towards something than toward, though can say both, and I've more than once heard Americans claim 'toward' is wrong.

As a preposition without complement (how the Cambridge Grammar describes what is traditionally the main adverb use), I feel the same: I'd go upwards or backwards rather than upward or backward, but the -ward form doesn't sound too bad.

As an adjective, however (or as a preposed adverb) I'm much happier with -ward: a backward glance, outward bound, a downward progression; though -wards is possible in all these.

Adjectives 'toward' and its near-opposite 'froward' are so rarely used that I have no intuition; except that they're stressed on the first syllable, and I don't think there's a -wards alternative.

'Sideward' sounds odd: at first I thought it was a mistake for 'sideways', but now agree it's possible, a sideward glance.

Posted by: entangledbank at May 26, 2004 12:32:39 AM

I had an English teacher in high school who said that "-wards" words were dialectal within the US, as well. He said people in the south, (he was from West Virginia, and we were in North Carolina at the time,) are more likely to say "-wards" variants than people from other places. I have no idea if that's accurate or not. There is a generally accepted explanation that people in NC (and I assume VA) speak (remnants of) the Queen's English, rather than the King's.

Posted by: Dana at May 26, 2004 9:10:48 AM

They're in free variation for me too. (And I'm always suspicious of claims that people make some arcane distinction -- would a full corpus of recordings bear them out? It's like the embarrassing things people discover about their power of discernment in blind taste tests.)

Posted by: language hat at May 27, 2004 7:32:48 AM

As a Dutch-raised early sequential second language speaker of English, I think I tend to use 'towards' more. But the respected Mr. Hat is right about the blind taste tests, so I can't be sure. Then again, why bother? Both Keats and Yeats are on your side, after all. ;)

Posted by: paul (gnfti) at Jul 29, 2004 12:48:44 AM

For no reason other than it seems reasonable: I use "towards" as an adverb and 'toward' as a prep.

If I feel that the modification of the verb's action needs to be felt as an 'ongoingness,' or there is needed an implication of suspension, I use "towards."

"Toward," I use as a preposition. Though it may not have reached its "object", it will. The belief is, It will overlay itself on its 'object'.

Sirius is moving towards dawn on the heels of Orion. (That's the state at the moment.)
He's headed towards a downfall. (There is the sense here that he may recover)
He's headed toward (for) a downfall. (No saving him)

Posted by: H. J. Sarafian at Oct 22, 2005 9:38:31 AM

Great, thanks for clearing that up, now I can correct my college english teacher.

Posted by: John B at Oct 25, 2005 12:18:22 PM

Funny, I have always thought that "towards" sounds kind of backwoodsy. That is, one might mosey towards something, but any other means of locomotion would would take one toward one's object.

Posted by: h.s. lopez at Dec 5, 2005 1:16:21 PM

I understand that it is only a lingual difference. But I think it makes more sense for 'toward' to be used when referring to singular nouns and 'towards' to be used when referring to plurarl nouns. I move toward the hill. I move towards the hills.

Posted by: Vincent at Feb 14, 2006 8:56:07 AM

Perhaps, the British use an 's' -- "towards" -- because they pronouce the word with the accent on the second syllable (toWARDs). S makes an easier transition to the following word; whereas Americans say "TOward" and it flows more easily to the following word so that the 's' is unnecessary.

Posted by: passers-by at Mar 9, 2006 9:52:38 AM

I found this entry while searching for some clarification on the context for which one would be correctly used. Not only did I find this entry helpful, but before this entry was discovered and my concerns were put to rest, I too had experienced a "word moment" after contemplating which variation to use for my situation.

Posted by: Adversary at Apr 27, 2006 3:06:18 AM

I am sensitive about the distinction of toward and towards because of an incident involving the proofs of a book of mine being published by Cambridge University Press in New York. The copy editor, who seemed to be under the impression that he/she had a better ear for English than I do, consistently changed my "towards" to "toward." Seemingly, the copy editor took the s-less form to be more American-sounding, but since I'm American I feel entitled to make up my own mind (though I have to admit that my mother is English, so maybe I picked up the habit from her.) Anyway, I just strew "STET" all over the manuscript to leave my version alone. I've noticed when my eight-year-old son reads books out loud to me that he consistently says "towards" when the word appears as "toward" on the page. I imagine he picked it up from me, but who knows (we live in Canada these days).

Posted by: C. Gracchus at Apr 27, 2006 8:39:04 AM

This is a great post, I'm glad I stumbled upon it (though sad it took two years). Thanks for turning me on to Geoffrey Pullum's proposal for Google-hit terminology.

Posted by: Justin Watt at Sep 5, 2006 9:16:14 PM

Please consider the notion of Google-hit terminology for yourself. Do you value scholarship? Of course you do or you would not be here bothering about the difference between 'toward' and 'towards'. You want to read the opinions of others, but you want to know how authoritative your source is in each case. Google-hit makes no discrimination between the learned and the illiterate and, worse, tends to increase confusion as people use the 'Google-hit' concept - confirming either error or correct usage indiscriminately. If you can't remember how to spell Uzbekistan, Google will surely help you, but it is a more conscientious reader who goes to the site of the Uzbek Embassy!

Posted by: Michael Mason at Oct 17, 2007 3:46:03 AM

Allow me to jump to the Tensor's defence here. He has not used a Google-hit frequency search to try to determine the correctness of a fact, but rather to determine what usages are more frequent in which places. I agree with M. Mason that Google-hit frequency fails to discriminate on the basis of scholarship, but that is not germane in this case.

Posted by: Jonathan at Oct 24, 2007 10:33:24 AM

I'm a firm believer that grammar is prescriptive—not descriptive. Meaning, we in wordsmithing are to write how people SHOULD use language, not how they DO use language. In my opinion, it's the difference between being a grammarian and a linguist—two often entirely different fields. Therefore, researching how many Google hits a particular word has is valuable linguistically, but not necessarily grammatically. For example, try a Google hit study on use of the word, "Yins," Pittsburg's variation of "Y'all," and you'll find 92,000 hits. That doesn't make it correct English usage. So TOWARD grammatical correctness I go!

Posted by: Tara at Nov 14, 2007 2:07:49 PM

We have two separate issues here.
1) I'm not a linguist or grammarian by profession, but it seems to me that, while the _rules_ of grammar are prescriptive, its _study_ is descriptive. Languages and their grammars evolve. "Yins" may be seen as a legitimate word in two or ten years and grammatical rules will have to take account of that if it happens. I have recently and increasingly often heard "ask" used as a noun and "action" as a verb. I don't like that, but I don't have to - the rules of grammar and language must and will follow actual usage.
2) The Tensor's study of "toward" and "towards" said nothing about correctness, only about frequency of use. In that sense, all of the above is moot since he used Google, quite properly, only as a way to estimate those frequencies.

Posted by: Jonathan at Nov 22, 2007 10:06:42 AM

I remember an English teacher back in high school telling me that the proper uses of TOWARD and TOWARDS depends on singular or plural subjects. ie., "He walked toward the water's edge" --- "They walked towards the water's edge" This could be wrong, but the teacher seemed very convincing.


Posted by: Frank Monaco at Jan 23, 2008 8:15:07 PM

I'm going to go ahead and use my authority as a native speaker of English to say that your teacher's "agreement in number" explanation is just wrong. "Towards the tree", "towards the trees" -- no difference in grammaticality for me.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 23, 2008 8:23:49 PM

As a native of Atlanta, I can speak with Southern authority. I have always used towards. I pronounce it "tords," using one syllable. I only found this site while trying to decide if I had spelled it incorrectly all these years, when I repeatedly noticed "toward" in print.

Posted by: M.K. at Mar 22, 2008 10:35:02 AM

There's absolutely no real reason I do this, except that maybe I've studied so many languages that conjugate adjectives AND verbs that I've begun to conjugate everything ELSE as well, but I usually use "toward" when the subject is plural "They move toward it," and "towards" when it's singular "She moves towards it."

Posted by: N. F. N at Jun 2, 2008 10:48:50 PM

I believe that since toward describes both singular and plural that adding an s is just poor use of English. The s is unnecessary. This is simply a matter of people believing that the use of a word lends correctness. We must strive to speak correctly and not allow slang and incorrectly pronounced words into our language. English usually stresses simplicity and if the word doesn't require a plural form the S is not used in any case.

Posted by: Ralph Segal at Jun 25, 2008 6:10:17 AM

I believe that since toward describes both singular and plural that adding an s is just poor use of English.

Ralph, have you noticed the -s that appears at the end of some present-tense verbs?

I/you/we/they walk
he/she/it walks

This -s only occurs with third-person singular (!) subjects. You say the -s in towards is unnecessary--what about the third-person singular -s? Unnecessary and therefore incorrect? Should we say, "every day he walk to the store", in order to suit your notion of simplicity?

Posted by: The Tensor at Jun 25, 2008 11:19:37 AM

I remember hearing an English prof on the radio once defining "toward" as having the meaning of going to or in the vicinity of (near). Whereas, "towards" meant an abstract attachment to something or someone or an act of emoting in reference to a person, place or thing. I agree, while listening to British film and radio there is an abundance of "towards" rather than "toward" in use. As for whether we American use "toward" over "towards", I find that most Americans use the version with the "s".

Posted by: dee at Jul 11, 2008 8:37:19 PM

Ok, I have now read all the posts and am still none the wiser. I think I will just carry on saying towards as I have always done. My friend has recently started using toward for some reason and I don't know why, I haven't bothered to ask him either, I just find it annoying hence this is why I'm here :)

Posted by: Paul M at Jul 24, 2008 5:10:17 AM

I too was confused and now I see I am not the only one wound tight.

I wonder if the type of people coming to this site are all of the same "Beaver" personality type?

Beavers: Think that life is not worth living unless they are thinking...

Enjoys instructions
Sensitive Accurate

Posted by: Brad at Aug 7, 2008 7:30:36 PM

I was googling toward/towards because I've read the word 'toward' somewhere and it looked really odd without the S, so I wanted to clear it out.
This was a moment of enlightenment for me!
Thank you, I'm Brazilian and my English is the most bizarre thing on the planet...

Too bad this entry is so old that I bet you will never get to read it.

Posted by: Marcela at Aug 27, 2008 8:11:03 AM

But what I really wanted to say was: Thank you for adding the Morrisey Moment

Posted by: Marcela at Aug 27, 2008 8:15:04 AM

"Yesterday, a graduate student who's not a native speaker of English asked the grad student mailing list the difference between toward and towards."

learn english.

Posted by: nunya at Sep 1, 2008 1:03:10 PM

If i keep having these "word moments", I'd never get my writing done. But that's what happens when I work on assignments in the wee hours of the day, fueled by coffee. Can't seem to do anything else but trip over the smaller details.

Anyway, good article, thaaaank you for the much needed clarification. ;)

Posted by: chloe at Sep 8, 2008 10:37:17 AM

My understand is that the "s" does carry meaning. It's one of those grammar rules that the British process via tacit understanding rather than specific teaching. British grammar uses both towards and toward, with towards coming from the Old English adverbial genitive form and toward stemming from prepositional usage. Because the adverbial form is used most often, "towards" occurs more frequently in British grammar.

America can thank Noah Webster for the use of "toward" as either adverb or preposition. He "simplified" a number of spellings and grammatical forms in order to create a more "American" English.

Posted by: cj at Sep 14, 2008 12:27:38 PM

I want to raise issue with your suggestion that excluding sites outside of the UK excludes British English. The vast majority of non-British and non-American English native speakers have learnt a form of English derived from British English. American English is a very recent (fashionable?) addition. The English spoken in Australia and New Zealand is a lot closer to the English dialects spoken in certain parts of England than it is to anything spoken in the US. The assumption that American English is dominant purely because the US is culturally and politically dominant is incorrect. It may become dominant in the next few decades as a result, but ...

Posted by: Domu888 at Jan 22, 2009 5:10:20 PM

I must agree with the ones who attribute the use of towards to a southern or perhaps rural dialect/coloquialism in the U.S. Being a native Californian born of an Oklahoman mother and Appalacian father, I would say that the use of "towards" is most definitely prevalent in english as spoken in the south and southern midwest. I am glad to read this discussion because I recently decided to train myself out of saying, "towards" and now realize that it is a legitimate usage.

Posted by: Mark Neal at Mar 2, 2009 9:24:12 PM

With all this remarkably erudite and considered argumentation, I wonder that no one has wondered which usage is the older? Wouldn't that settle it? What about the etymology? From the online dictionary of etymology,
"O.E. toweard "in the direction of," prepositional use of toweard (adj.) "coming, approaching," from to (see to) + -weard, from P.Gmc. *-warth, from PIE *wert "turn" (see -ward). Towards with adverbial genitive ending, was in O.E. as toweards."

Now if only I knew what an "adverbial genitive ending" was...

Posted by: Patrick G at Mar 11, 2009 9:11:11 PM

Seems to me that one could use the "s" as a morpheme to distinguish between one or multiple possible destinations. For example, "Please move towards the opposite wall," versus "John moved toward Sarah." In the first case, there are multiple "wards" near (or in the direction of) the wall; in the second, John's final position has already been determined and is therefore singular. Most simplistically, this breaks down to a past versus present/future usage. However, there are present/future usages that call for the singular as well: "The train will head toward Chicago at 9:15." Because it is on a track and has a prescribed destination, it is limited to one position (and one path to that position).

Posted by: Steve B at Nov 15, 2009 2:06:00 PM

"towards -toward -site:us -site:uk" = 237,000,000 results
"toward -towards -site:us -site:uk" = 153,000,000 results

"towards -toward -site:us -site:uk site:ca" 2,190,000 results
"toward -towards -site:us -site:uk site:ca" 1,300,000 results

Posted by: HK at Mar 11, 2010 7:59:13 PM

"toward -towards site:us" = 1,660,000 results
"towards -toward site:us" = 1,150,000 results

"toward -towards site:com" = 59,500,000 results
"towards -toward site:com" = 83,100,000 results

"toward -towards -site:uk -site:ca -site:au" = 190,000,000 results
"towards -toward -site:uk -site:ca -site:au" = 232,000,000 results

For what it's worth, all this tells us is that the spelling without the final -s is slightly more common on .us domains; but you're still dismissing the majority of the American domains which aren't appended by the .us suffix. Google shouldn't be used as a tool that accurately measures usage of words. Moreover, its search engine often states that there are thousands or millions of results for something, when in reality, it might only display 2 pages worth.

Posted by: HK at Mar 11, 2010 8:14:30 PM

I so much enjoyed Tara's comment Nov 14, 2007 2:07:49 PM and quite agree with her on everything until she noted Pittsburg's variation of "Y'all..." It is Pittsburgh. Also, it isn't just yins, it is yins, yinz, yunz, you'uns, or youns depending on which part of the city you live in, that is . And I learned, having been born and raised in that area, it is the only municipality in the U.S. thusly spelled, and there actually is a history of why in the United States that particular city has the 'h' attached to the end, check out'h'_at_the_end_of_Pittsburgh
Also, for Pittsburghese afficionados, the Wikipedia entry for Yinz

I so thoroughly enjoyed this site and all the comments that I've Bookmarked it for frequent visitations in the future.

I like Tara's rationale best and will use it when using toward and towards. Linguist or grammarian? Excellent distinctions.

Posted by: Shenonymous at Apr 19, 2010 11:00:41 PM

Great discussion. I tend to use "toward" for more practical, or concrete, concepts such as "I walk toward the tree", and more abstract concepts such as "towards victory!" or "an experiment towards a better future."

But then, I tend towards simplicity and use "toward". Now I am confused.

Posted by: bouncingbrain at Jun 12, 2011 10:20:51 AM