Forward and backwards. Or is it backward and forwards? Sometimes these words can make you feel like You’re on a seesaw of uncertainty, and when you add correct versus colloquial usage and British and American preferences to the mix, the ride gets even dizzier. In this Writer’s Toolbox, I’ll try to clear up the confusion?so that you can move forward in your writing.
British versus US English
Forward(s), backward(s), toward(s), and afterward(s) make a messy group of words at the best of times. To add an “s” or not? Although it can depend on whether the words are being used as adverbs, nouns, or adjectives, for adverbs the US standard is to use the simpler form (no “s”); British spelling prefers the “s”. But this has not always been the case. This fascinating graph shows how the word toward has grown in popularity in US English over the past two centuries (in contrast, this graph shows towards continuing strong in British English).
Canadian usage, of course, is a hybrid of British and US preferences. According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the preferred Canadian style uses “forward” and “toward,” but “backwards” and “afterwards”.
Example A: Sarah ran toward the scene.
Example B: Sarah ran forward.
Example C: She stumbled backwards.
Example D: Afterwards, she couldn’t remember why she’d done it.
Foreword versus Forward
Note that “forward” should never be substituted for “foreword,” that introductory section to a book. Although “forward” can be used as a noun, It’s a sports reference and not a part of a book. Similarly, you’d find an “afterword” in a book (not an “afterward”).
Example E: Sarah wrote the foreword to her colleague’s book.
Example F: Sarah wrote the afterword afterwards. Note that here, the “afterword” is what she wrote; “afterwards,” an adverb, describes how (when) she wrote it.
A final caution: colloquial language often confuses these words ending in “?ward,” and It’s easy for unintended errors to slip in. Before submitting a manuscript, paper, or other written work, a quick ?Find/Replace? action will ensure you make all usage consistent.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.