Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Towards a Fuller Understanding of Usage

Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and student of linguistics who "holds the paradoxical view that it's possible to be a prescriptivist and descriptivist simultaneously." Here, he investigates the word towards, a favorite target of American editors, who love to lop off that supposedly superfluous -s.

I remember when my family got WordPerfect 5.2 for Windows, roughly twenty years ago. I was excited because it came with a grammar checker called Grammatik, and I, as an aspiring young writer, thought it would help me improve my writing. But I soon came to find its advice more frustrating than helpful. I particularly remember it telling me not to use towards because it was British; I was supposed to use toward instead.

I was perplexed. I'm certainly not British, so how was it that I came to be using a British word? But this wasn't just some fluke of Grammatik; many usage commentators say the same thing. Bryan Garner says confidently and unequivocally, "In Am[erican] E[nglish], the preferred form is toward." Note the bare passive "preferred" — one wonders, preferred by whom? But I'll get to that later. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage more fairly states, "Both words are commonly used in the U.S., but toward is undoubtedly more prevalent." Searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and Google Books Ngrams confirm this. The Corpus of Historical American English, on the other hand, gives us a bit of a hint of what's happening by showing usage change over time. In the 1820s, towards outnumbered toward in print by almost 4 to 1. By the first decade of the 2000s, the situation had reversed and then some: toward outnumbered towards 10 to 1.

By itself, this data seems to indicate that Americans have moved away from towards. And why shouldn't they? We've also moved away from colour and organise and other British forms. But the numbers are deceptive. Remember that these corpora all rely on published writing, and published writing is edited writing. When we peek inside the editorial process, things become clearer: it's editors who are driving the change. I can testify that editors love to strike out that supposedly extraneous -s. I've seen it over and over in my twelve years as an editor.

For part of my master's thesis, I gave volunteer editors raw manuscripts and asked them to edit them. Then I catalogued all the usage and grammar changes they made. One particular finding was rather surprising but also validating: authors used toward and towards in roughly equal numbers. In about 35,000 words of unedited text, toward appeared nine times, and towards ten times. Let me be quick to point out that these manuscripts were academic journal articles. If Standard English is the formal usage of educated writers, then towards is clearly standard. After the editors were through, though, there were seventeen instances of toward and only two of towards, which is close to the 10-to-1 ratio found in the corpora. Eighty percent of all instances of towards lost their -s.

In a nutshell, 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. We're just using past editorial practice as justification for current editorial practice. Curiously, Garner places towards at stage 4 in his "language-change index," meaning that "the form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts." I'm not sure what cogent grounds there are here, but his index assumes that disfavored forms are upstarts fighting against tradition. In this case, the "few linguistic stalwarts" are usage writers and the editors who follow them, and they're driving towards out of print, not fighting a losing battle against it. They're the one who prefer toward to towards and who are imposing their preference on the rest of us.

I know that some of you out there are still thinking, "But why include the -s? You don't need it!" as if a letter that could be deleted is automatically one that should be deleted. But it's a fairly large logical leap from "you don't need it" to "you should get rid of it." And besides, towards has been a part of the English language for as long as there has been an English language. It's still common in educated speech and unedited writing. Why is it so important to get rid of it now?

That's just the thing. It isn't. We copy editors aren't doing our readers a service by deleting the -s. It's just mindless mechanical work based on an incomplete view of usage. It's past time we move away from that view and towards a fuller one.

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Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and book designer with a master's degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University. His thesis explores the role of copyediting in regulating English usage, and he holds the paradoxical view that it's possible to be a prescriptivist and descriptivist simultaneously. He writes about usage, editing, and linguistics at arrantpedantry.com, and he also writes a column on grammar for Copyediting newsletter. In his free time he likes to play Scrabble and design word-nerdy t-shirts. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArrantPedantry Click here to read more articles by Jonathon Owen.