Submitted by fbf  •  May 4, 2013

When did we start pluralizing prepositions?

How can backwards be a word if backward is as well? Forwards and forward? Beside and besides?

I can’t turn a light switch ons, can I? Go outs the door?

Nouns can be plural, and verbs have tense, but prepositions? 

When did we start pluralizing those?

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I wouldn't call this a plural, and besides (in any case), 'backward(s)' and 'forward(s)' are adverbs not prepositions (although they backward and forward, without an s can also be adjectives).

Etymology Online Dictionary calls them adverbial genitives and dates 'backwards' from the 1510s and 'forwards' from Middle English.

Backwards and forwards are standard in British English, though not in American English (Webster thought 'forwards' a corruption), and the reason you may think they're recent is I assume because you're North American, and certain Britishisms have only begun to appear there quite recently.

'Besides' and 'beside' is a different story, as they are different words with different meanings. 'Beside' (dating from about 1200) is a preposition - 'Come and sit beside me'. Besides, meaning 'in addition to, apart from' can also be a preposition - 'I've got no family besides my parents' or an adverb, meaning 'apart from that, in addition to that' - 'I really can't be bothered to go out tonight, and besides, I've no money'.

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Oops! An extra 'they' slipped into that first sentence. Sorry!

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I knew the ess versions of those words were common in England, so I assumed that they were older, but I think they got adopted on this side of the pond due to poor grammar...sometimes it sounds more proper to add essess onto words when you're messing up on how you place them in a sentence.

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Personally I like having the choice; it's a bit like among and amongst (which is also frowned on in the US). Sometimes one fits the surrounding words better, sometimes the other. But we also seem to prefer one or the other in certain contexts. We usually say 'backwards and forwards', but wouldn't say 'look forwards to seeing you', for example.

It also seems that the backwards with an S is more common than forwards with an S. In British-published books Google Ngram shows 'going backwards' ahead of 'going backward' but 'going forward' in front of 'going forwards'. And the same pattern is true for 'lean, move, run'.

Interesting question. Now you've got me wondering just how we Brits do use the two versions.

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"Backwards and forwards are standard in British English, though not in American English (Webster thought 'forwards' a corruption),"

Webster was out to lunch on this one. That final s isn't just an English thing: it's a characteristic of the Germanic languages.

As Erich Honecker used to say: "Vorwärts immer, rückwärts nimmer!"

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Warsaw Will - I would think running backward would be ahead of backwards.

JJM - thank you for the lesson in German. I'm actually fine with the ess at the end of these if it's always there...not so much with the picking and choosing.

To me, it should be there or not be there. It's not dealer's choice (unless you're Faulkner or something...that man can do whatever he pleases).

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@fbf - Firstly, let me make it clear I am only talking about British English, and as with one or two other grammar points, we do indeed have dealer's choice, as you put it. And as I said before, I personally like having those choices.

In British books, at least, 'running backwards' is way ahead of 'running backward', but 'running forward' leads 'running forwards'. British newspapers show a similar story, all for running:

Guardian - backwards 15, backward 8, forwards 21, forward 84
Independent - backwards 67, backward 0, forwards 1, forward 24
Telegraph - backwards 90, backward 1, forwards 7, forward 73

The figures for forwards are overblown as they include talk of rugby forwards. SAl;l together very strange: we seem to strongly prefer 'running backwards' but 'running forward'.

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The Oxford Dict. Online (OED) says this for backward(s):

usage: In US English, the adverb form is sometimes spelled backwards (the ladder fell backwards), but the adjective is almost always backward (a backward glance). Directional words using the suffix -ward tend to have no s ending in US English, although backwards is more common than afterwards, towards, or forwards. The s ending often (but not always) appears in the phrases backwards and forwards and bending over backwards. In British English, the spelling backwards is more common than backward .

I often put the 's' on backward as an adverb ... but not as an adj. I don't ever recall anyone of my teachers saying the adverb with an 's' was wrong. But it's a long time since I sat in Mrs. Lipscomb's class.

For 'forward' ... it's pretty much without the 's'. But 'towards' sounds good ... sounds like 'twards' but still has the 's'.

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The adverbial suffix "-wards" in standard English is equivalent in intent to "-warts" in German, which is an inflection (specifically, gerund) of the verb "werden", to become; coupled with its initial preposition it implies the subject approaching a position from an assumed starting position, and by logical extension, the direction in which a subject is moving.

the adjectival "-ward" by contrast, describes the position or the point in time occupied by one grammatical person, relative to another (perhaps after having moved in the direction specified). Followed by "of", words ending in "-ward" become prepositional constructions (usages of the form "forwards of" are sub-standard), although only "forward of" (= in front of/ ahead of/ before) appears to have been in common use (to my knowledge..

"Afterwards" and "afterward" are used only adjectivally, and only to describe the point of time occupied by a person relative to another. According to the above scheme, "afterward" is legitimate while "afterwards" is presumably a corruption.

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@RichT - could you perhaps give us an example of either afterwards or afterward being used adjectivally, since, as far as I know, both are only ever adverbs - 'I'll see you afterwards'. In the UK, the version with S is standard, although my dictionary suggests that in North America, the version without is more common.

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@Warsaw Will

Not now; afterward.

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@fbf - Was that meant to be answering my question to RichT, of biscuits fame? If so, my point exactly: that's an adverb. If not, I'm not sure of your point. :)

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@Warsaw Will - Sorry for long delay replying!

Thanks for pointing out my mistake . Of course afterward is an adverb of time. A momentary mental glitch on my part, left unchecked in the haste of finishing and sending my post. I trust everything else was in order!

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