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Slouching Toward (or Is It Towards?) Consistency

Can you tell what caught my eye in this ad for a Schick razor in the July issue of Elle magazine?

"Shave forwards … and backwards."

If you guessed "the s on the end of forwards and backwards," give yourself a point. (If you figured out that the "f.a.b." model name means "forwards and backwards," you get extra credit.)

I'm a former copy editor, so I did a little reflexive jump when I saw those spellings in an ad for an American brand in an American magazine. That's because in American written English, custom dictates that we omit the s on -ward words when they function as adverbs. We move toward a goal, face outward or inward, shave forward and backward. It isn't wrong to use the s-ful forms – they're standard in British writing – but for some reason (efficiency? orneriness?) American editors are trained to change them. As Jonathon Owen observed here in 2013,

towards is seemingly rare in American English because copy editors make it rare. Lexicographers note its rarity in print and list toward as the primary form. Usage writers conclude that towards is British and should be avoided in American writing. Their prescriptions, which appear to be based on actual usage, then give editors added support for deleting the -s, and the signal is strengthened in a feedback loop.

Here's the thing, though: Wherever English is spoken – yes, even in these United States – we crave those -s endings, copy editors be damned. When we talk, and when we submit unedited prose, we add esses all over the place. For all sorts of reasons.

Take -wards. In Old English it was spelled -weards, and it developed concurrently with -weard, now spelled -ward. Both suffixes had the sense of "having a specified direction," and they were used in lots of fixed ways – outward, homeward, westward, the now-obsolete fromwards – and some ad-hoc ways, too: Newton-wards, Troy-wards, God-wards. The OED's usage note just shrugs about when to prefer -ward over -wards: "The choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form." But the note goes on to split hairs in a way that I'm guessing many readers would find a bit overzealous:

Where the meaning to be expressed includes the notion of manner as well as direction of movement, -wards is required, as in 'to walk backwards&', 'to write backwards'. In other instances the distinction seems to be that -wards is used when the adverb is meant to express a definite direction in contrast with other directions: thus we say 'it is moving forwards if it is moving at all', but 'to come forward', not 'forwards'… ; so 'to travel eastward' expresses generally the notion of traveling in the direction of an eastern goal, 'to travel eastwards' implies that the direction is thought of as contrasted with other possible directions.

Maybe that's why American editors decided to go with a single s-less standard: Having to follow this logic, especially on deadline, can make a person go crazy-wards.

(We're talking only about adverbs here. When we forward an email – verb – or cast a backward glance – adjective – we dispense with the terminal -s. Some people, though, like to distinguish between backward in the "developmentally lagging" sense and backwards in the "toward the rear" sense. Yes, English is hard.)

There's less daylight between American and British authorities on another s-ful word: anyways. The American usage authority Bryan A. Garner says it's "invariably inferior' to anyway, the American Heritage Dictionary dismisses it as "nonstandard,' and the OED calls it "colloquial and regional" and also "chiefly N. Amer." Still, that hasn't stopped people from using it, in speech and writing, for centuries. The OED has citations for its use as an adverb since the 1200s and as a sentence adverb since the early 19th century: Charles Dickens had a character say 'Anyways, I am glad' in Our Mutual Friend (1865). As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage puts it, anyways may be nonstandard, but you can't call it substandard. Subconsciously, we want to regularize anyways: to make it conform to the template of always and sideways, which never lose their terminal -s.

That appears to be what's going on with two much less standard usages: mines and gots, both of which are frequent targets of the "That's not a word!" police. The possessive pronoun mine, which comes after a subject to indicate something belonging to me, is an outlier: Its counterparts are yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs, all of which, as you've surely noticed, end with s. (At one time mine could also precede a subject if that word began with a vowel. The most familiar surviving example may be the opening line of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic": "Mine eyes have seen the glory…") Children who are beginning to speak English often regularize mine to fit the pattern: "You have yours and I have mines." Only after repeated correction do they drop the s, and in some dialects of English they never have to. (For more on mines and mine's, see the this Language Log post and comments.)

Gots is another example of regularization. Got is, strictly speaking, the past tense of get, but in real-life speech we often use it for the present tense: "He got it bad and that ain't good" translates to "He has it bad and that isn't good" in formal English. Has, like most singular third-person present-tense verbs in English, ends in -s: he runs, she plays, it falls down. So why not "He gots"? Children, with their innate sense of the regular, will often make a logical choice to use this form. And so, depending on their dialect, will many adults.

Terminal -s is also problematic with maths, which is the preferred British abbreviation for mathematics. Lynne Murphy, an American linguist who teaches in England, observes in The Prodigal Tongue that "the British stiff upper lip is jolted into a trembling fury by math" – the American form. Some Brits insist that maths respects the "plural" nature of mathematics, but mathematics isn't plural any more than physics is. Maths, which used to take a period (or full stop) at the end of the word, is simply a contraction of mathematics – and, needless to say, a marker of Britishness.

And in the end – pun intended – the fuss over terminal -s is mostly about markers. Our use or avoidance of -s at the end of certain words can mark us as British or American, child or adult, "elite" or "working class." It can even have racial significance. Personally, I go s-less; it's how I was trained as an American writer and editor. My advice to you? Know the rules of your own profession or publication and follow them consistently. Just keep in mind that to -s or not to -s is a matter of convention, not the end of the world as we know it.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Thursday August 2nd, 4:38 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Thanks, Nancy
Very illuminating!

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