Grammar Moses: Looking backwards on 2019

Updated 12/14/2019 5:46 PM

Just when I think I'm the only person who drives around correcting the grammar of radio news readers or dreams (not while driving, mind you) about interesting turns of phrases, along comes Will Pastor.

"I was thinking about two commonly used words recently that make no sense as to how they were developed," Will wrote to me. "'Forward' and 'backwards.' No one ever said, 'I'm really looking forwards to getting my antique clock fixed so the hands stop moving backward.' Why is 'forward' always singular but 'backwards' always in plural form? They both describe motion or direction, right? These are the type of trivial things that keep me up at night. That, and how to properly line up my fourth putt."


I bet few of us have ever given any thought to this -- except perhaps for how to line up one's fourth putt -- but it's worth exploring.

First, though, simply putting an "s" on the end of a word does not make it a plural.

I remember flipping through my AP Stylebook and finding an entry that read: "Backward, not 'backwards'" with no explanation.

I was going to respond to Will that one should always use "backward."

I'm glad I have a small library of books above my desk to consult.

Bryan Garner in his "directional words" entry in "Modern American Usage" distinguishes between American and British usage.

In American English, he says, the preferred practice is to use the -ward form: toward, forward, leeward, skyward, upward. You get the idea.

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Words ending in "ward" can be either adjectives (a backward glance) or adverbs (I walked backward out of the room), but words ending in "wards," which are common in the U.K., are specifically adverbs there.

In American English you can also use "backwards" as an adverb, as in "I fell backwards."

To Will's point about never seeing a mixture, Google's Ngram viewer reveals that authors of books -- presumably both American and British authors of books written in English -- during the 1800s and 1900s used "backwards and forwards" more often than "backward and forward."

The dominance of "backwards and forwards" was pronounced in the 1800s, but the gap had narrowed considerably toward 2000.

You'll be happy to learn that neither "backwards and forward" nor "backward and forwards" registered a blip in my Ngram inquiry.

Hip, hip, hooray for parallel construction.

In summary, only "backward" is an adjective. "Backward" is the preferred adverb in American English. "Backwards" is preferred adverb in British English.


Some of you might be thinking, "Moses, I believe 'backward' has a nondirectional usage."

And you'd be right.

"Backward" can also mean underdeveloped or regressive.

So, you can skate backward (though I no longer can), and you're backward if you're not a devotee of progressive rock.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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