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Backward vs. Backwards?

Is there a grammatical difference between saying “I walked down the street backwards” and “I walked down the street backward” (without the “s”)? Is one of them incorrect, or are they interchangeable? Does the same go for “forward(s)” and “toward(s)”?

  • October 25, 2011
  • Posted by Tonto
  • Filed in Grammar

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Both forms are correct; generally, you find the -s ending more prevalent in Great Britain (or among British English speakers), and the shorter form more commonly in the US. There's a similarity with "toward" and "towards."

sbhall52 October 25, 2011 @ 12:41PM

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The difference is that with the S, they are not words. It is forward, toward, and backward.

Meg1 October 25, 2011 @ 1:48PM

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The OED and Chambers disagree.
Both list the "s" forms as synonyms of the "non-s" versions.
Another victory for common usage over common sense.

Hairy Scot October 25, 2011 @ 4:38PM

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As a British English speaker I would use Backward as an adjective, e.g. to take a backward step and Backwards as an adverb, e.g. I played the song backwards. Tho I am aware as well that they are synonymous, it's just my personal preference.

BobToms100 October 26, 2011 @ 7:48AM

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From the OED:

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 .

AnWulf October 28, 2011 @ 3:53AM

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The British favor the "s" and the BBC uses it invariably. In the States, by the turn of the century, teachers stopped using/accepting the form with "s" and tests such as the college SAT expect the shorter form, e.g. in regard to vs. in regards to, etc.

steve3 November 23, 2011 @ 10:47AM

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The BBC also invariably uses "lawr".

Regarding "in regard to" vs "in regards to", I think that is a can of worms best left for a separate discussion as I am sure the proponents of the "s" form will soon be making their views known.

Hairy Scot November 23, 2011 @ 1:43PM

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And in regards to that, I'll kindly keep my mouth shut ;)

Hacovo November 30, 2011 @ 4:58PM

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I really don't see that 'in regards to' has any connection at all with the backward(s)/forward(s) issue, which is one of different usage between BrE and AmE. In contrast, 'in regards to' seems to be more an issue of standard or not, whatever side of the pond or the argument you happen to be on, linguistically speaking.

A closer analogy could probably be made with 'while/whilst', 'among/amongst' etc, which I, being a BrE speaker, use interchangeably. But I know that some American commentators don't particularly like the '-st' versions, seeing them as 'prissy' Briticisms.

Warsaw Will December 2, 2011 @ 1:41PM

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One can avoid regard/regards all together by brooking "anent". :)

AnWulf December 2, 2011 @ 2:46PM

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Other sources are consistent with what is here -- that the adverb carries the "s", the adjective doesn't, and that English English speakers lean toward the "s", while American English speakers drop it, for the most part. I, however, tend to use the "s" as an adverb, and I'm American.

"In regard to" and "with regard to" should never carry the "s". You may send a note or gift "with best regards", but refer to something "with regard" to whatever. The added "s" when using "regard" while referring to something is a pet peeve.

Ditto with people -- lots of people, many of them well-educated -- who say "eco cetera" instead of "et cetera." Drives me nuts. As does "mis-chee-vee-us" (vs mis-chi-vus), nu-cu-lar (vs nu-klee-ar), jew-ler-y (vs jew-el-ry) all annoy me.

Though there are greater crimes on the planet than annoying me...

jodada March 11, 2013 @ 12:41PM

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I am in the nuthouse with you and the squirrels jodada. All of those words you mention were grounds for divorce after 17 years of grammatical torture! Not to mention "cutle-ry" (instead of cut-lery)!!

MsPedant October 18, 2013 @ 5:23PM

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Add to that:-
nuc-u-lear instead of nu-clear
Bir-naard instead of Bernard
pri-meer instead of pre-m-i-er

Hairy Scot October 18, 2013 @ 6:02PM

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Och aye, but aren't the last two American pronunciations rather than folks wot can't speak proper?

Going back to the original query of backward vs backwards, which is how I ended up here incidentally, down 'ere in the west countreee we add the "s" to everything. I'm currently editing a novel which is destined for both a British and American audience, so I'm happy to go with "s" for the adverb and go "s"-less for the adjective.

My particular problem was with "sent him tumbling backwards". I've been removing "s"s left right and centre (center), but that just doesn't sound right without one!

MsPedant October 18, 2013 @ 7:08PM

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backward. period.

steve3 October 18, 2013 @ 8:24PM

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steve3 October 18, 2013 @ 8:24PM

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@steve3 - to which I could reply - backwards full stop. But it doesn't get the discussion very far, does it?

@MsPedant - 'he tumbled backward(s)' - I suppose it depends on whether you have more British or American readers, how used the American ones are to British English and how much British character you want to give to the story. As a Brit I'd always use 'backwards', but (like most Brits) I'm reasonably accustomed to American writing, so wouldn't be particularly fazed by 'backward'.

Unfortunately, the same doesn't seem to hold true the other way round. As far as I'm aware, American fiction is published in Britain unchanged, but American publishers deem it necessary to 'translate' British fiction before it can be published in the US.

The most notorious examples are the Harry Potter books, although it seems that Canadians get the original versions. Here is a side-by-side comparison of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' (where even the title got changed in the US edition). Note the changing of 'towards' to 'toward', 'afterwards' to 'afterward' and of course 'backwards' to 'backward':

Warsaw Will October 19, 2013 @ 5:23AM

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Some of those changes are ghastly while others are reasonable considering the different audience. I cannot help but wonder however what has been lost in the soft translation.

Jasper October 19, 2013 @ 7:26AM

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More on that particular topic here, with particular reference to Inspector Rebus:

Warsaw Will October 19, 2013 @ 11:23AM

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According to the Merriam - Webster ' s dictionary, backward, forward, and toward are correct. Adding an s letter to any makes it NOT a word. Applies to Great Britain and America.

Deanne October 26, 2015 @ 8:43PM

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@Deanne - Merriam-Webster is of course an American dictionary, and one of my favourites. But before saying what applies to Great Britain, perhaps a look in a British dictionary might be a good idea:

And if you read Merriam-Webster more carefully you'll see: "toward - also towards"; "Variant of backward: backwards". And it even has an entry for forwards" with this example "for every step that her campaign takes forwards, it seems to take two backwards"

Warsaw Will October 31, 2015 @ 9:40AM

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