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Toward vs. towards

Toward and towards are equally acceptable forms of the word primarily meaning in the direction of. Other than the at the end, there is no difference between them. Some people differentiate the two words in various ways, but these preferences are not borne out in the usage of most English speakers. Neither form is more formal or informal or more or less logical than the other (the Oxford English Dictionary says towards is more colloquial in British English, but we see no evidence that this is true in 21st-century British writing), so you’re safe using the one that sounds better to you.

But while both these directional words are used in all varieties of English, toward is preferred in American and Canadian English, while towards is preferred in varieties of English from outside North America. These are not rules, however, and exceptions are easily found.

History

Toward is the older form. It comes from the Old English tóweard, which meant roughly the same as our modern toward.1 Towards is also old, however, as for many centuries the suffixes –ward and –wards have been more or less interchangeable and have given rise to parallel forms of many words—for example, backward and backwards, and forward and forwards.2 Towards became the dominant form in the 17th century and remained ascendant until the Americans took up toward in the 19th century.

This ngram, which graphs the use of toward and towards (as a percentage of all words used) in a large number of British books and periodicals published from 1800 to 2000, shows that the latter has been heavily favored through modern times, though toward might now be gaining ground.

And the next ngram shows the words’ use in American books and periodicals from the same period. It shows that the transition from the now more British towards to the now more North American toward occurred around 1900.


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Examples

American and Canadian publications prefer toward, as used in these examples:

Scientists are moving toward the conclusion that the eastern cougar was erroneously classified as a separate subspecies in the first place. [NY Times]

To be sure, China is already seeing a shift away from exports toward domestic purchases as its sales to places like Europe falter. [Globe and Mail]

One inning Tuesday went a long way toward erasing any questions the Minnesota Twins might have about their closer. [USA Today]

U.K. and Australian writers heavily favor towards, by a ratio of about 10 to 1. For example, these news organizations use towards much more often than toward:

Libyan rebels advanced west towards Tripoli today after seeing off yet more airstrikes on captured cities by an increasingly desperate Colonel Gaddafi. [Daily Mail]

A few months later, towards December, they circle back completing a round trip of several hundred kilometres. [Guardian]

Scientists are moving towards the conclusion that the eastern cougar was erroneously classified as a separate subspecies in the first place. [Australian Associated Press (article now offline)]

Police began a surveillance operation and on December 23 last year saw David Smith leave his home and head towards a car. [Edinburgh Evening News (article now offline)]

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Comments

  1. Realguy says:

    Yet another example that languages live and evolve. What is acceptable/unacceptable today may change to the opposite tomorrow. Purists should take heed….

    • tomo008866 says:

      You can’t say ‘color’. You NEED the ‘our’ spelling to make that pronunciation. Do you spell ‘flour’ as ‘flor’? Nope. That’s one of the best examples of how necessary the ‘u’ is.

  2. Of course you mean “fear not the distinctions…..”.

  3. Excellent information. Much more thorough and more interesting than I expected.

  4. Señor Paco says:

    I will have to respectfully disagree with you here. I believe that any utterance or written representation of such can, and will, be assumed into a language if that is the method by witch the speakers communicate. “Your” and “you’re” are easily deciphered and distinguished contextually and since they sound identical their really is no reason to spell them differently. I mean they’re.

    • SlagDrop says:

      Don’t you mean there…?

      This is a good example of what Kendall was saying. There, their, they’re mean completely different things. Toward and towards do not.

      • Señor Paco says:

        Yes, I meant there. However, I spelled it incorrectly to illustrate my point – you understood it just fine I assume?

        • Grammarist says:

          Actually no, in the written phrase context is far less important than when spoken. To write “they’re” as a correction to a deliberately incorrect use of the word “their” when in fact the correct word was “there” only demonstrates your confusion. The words mean different things for a reason and this is demonstrated in their spelling. “They’re” being a contraction of the words “they are” is a particularly important distinction between “their” which is possessive. Your point is neither illustrated nor relevant and people like you make the world shit. Please stop speaking my language, it is offensive.

          • … so along comes an erudite, elitist pig — hiding behind the mantle of a pseudonym meant to manipulate perception (and maybe his own self-image?) — to disrupt what had been a civil and instructive discourse. Using his logic, a child shouldn’t speak lest he make such grammatical errors, a foreigner should best stick to his mother tongue, and the superior English who colonized North Anerica should have simply wiped out the savages who lived here for making the use of their language offensive, much like the Spanish decimated Mexico, Central and South America (for altogether different reasons).

            This is just wrong on so many levels… and by the way Grammarist, you do not own the English language (the possesive “my language”). It is fluid and everchanging, and belongs to no one and everyone, to anyone who makes the attempt to use it as a means of communication.

            “… people like you make the world shit.” People like you indeed make the world shit, with their loathsome and contemptible opinions. Please crawl back into your very dark hole, and let the rest of us get along and communicate as best we can.

          • Grammarist says:

            It seems as though my deliberately inflammatory comment touched a nerve. How predictable. However, dethroning a keyboard warrior by playing him at his own game doesn’t exactly do much to further your point. An inability to distinguish between an individual frustrated by the native speakers’ adaptations of his language and some kind of racist with grammatically fueled genocidal tendencies also proves that you completely missed my point. But well done on your err… opinion.

            As Senor Paco has already so eloquently and diplomatically responded I will apologise for the deliberate provocation in my earlier comment.

            However, I do disagree that it is “just awesome” that the English language is being adapted to a basic, childlike means of communication so far from where it has been for centuries. It is symptomatic of a wider spread problem which is the stupidification of the masses as mediocrity becomes more ‘acceptable’ in a socialist attempt at equality. If grammar was taught more stringently at primary schools and adhered to more diligently in the senior schools the ‘awesomeness’ would start to dissipate as the masses become more educated. To set the record straight, I more commonly find that the people I meet who have English as a second language have a far better grasp of English grammar than all of the native speakers I know. My frustration stems solely from the native speakers and in no way is aimed at children learning a language, foreigners learning English as their second language, or the mentally handicapped. I actually fall into the category of a foreigner learning a second language and I’m sure that my French grammar causes many of the locals I meet to shudder.

            Enjoy your day toni (see what I did there?).

          • Señor Paco says:

            Sorry I’ve taken sew long two respond. You dew have a point in that by spelling synonyms differently we can distinguish them, and their meanings, more easily at a glance. I won’t argue against that. However, my point was simply that words, or more appropriately language, is always changing (as Tony0519 so aptly pointed out) and that Kendall’s comment, “they make sense, and the alternative doesn’t” is only, as he says, “a truism where it is true, and false everywhere else.” The words “your” and “you’re” could easily be spelled the same, or could even be transformed into “you” as in, “you brother is great” and “you a brother to me”. Of course, we haven’t accepted these usages of “you” into our language on a wide scale…yet. As I’m sure you’re aware, some English speakers DO use this spelling and pronunciation to mean exactly what you and I use “your” and “you’re” for – and the “purists” no doubt. By the way, a purist is just someone who knows the etemology of a word and refuses to live in the present. Interestingly, the Spanish language does use one word and one pronunciation for the English equivalents of “you” and “your”. It is “tu”. Check it out – “tu eres bueno” = “you are good” while “tu amigo es bueno” = “your friend is good”. Someone may try to point out that there is normally (dare I say must be) an accent mark above the “u” in the “you” form of “tu”. However, modern day typing, texting, and international communications are quickly removing it from use – and guess what? EVERYONE STILL UNDERSTANDS THE MEANING. It is just awesome!! So check out the words “make”. There are more than 50 definitions for that spelling and pronunciation. I bet you have even heard of most of them. Cheers!

          • I’m sorry Paco but I must differ with you on a couple of points. I will begin with my definition of the following term: “Purist” is a word of French origin that we lazy people call others to justify our own blunders. Next, the English language (confusing though it may be) has many rules that when disregarded cause undue misunderstandings. I think that polite and civilized users will try to refrain from posting offensive comments, and therefore, in my humble, unbiased opinion, 1. Grammarist should have watched his phraseology, and, 2. You shouldn’t be helping to destroy the English language. It seems as if you insinuate that after disposing of the rules of English, we will still understand each other. The way I see it, we have a hard enough time understanding each other as it is, you know what I mean? If I have misjudged your take, please forgive me, I just hate watching American English getting dumbed down worse than it already is.

  5. Awesome, explicit! I love it, thank ye, :).

  6. Salahudheen says:

    So both toward and towards are acceptable in formal English.

  7. Pakman says:

    Towards headed toward oblivion? :)

  8. The days are coming, the worst chapter in the history of this land, i foresee the chaos that dissolve this land in nothingness in not less than 30 years.When every citizen has a chance of 99/100 to be a criminal, i think that society does not worth saving.We are nearing the death end we deny to accept.Everyday we see one more step towards violence,corruption,all sorts of crime and the destruction of ecology, uproot of the very foundation of this land, its origin ,cultural heritage based on unity and strength was once the living principles of our fore fathers that I am looking forward for that day for a New Kingdom.

    • Señor Paco says:

      Am I reading too much into your passage…you used “towards” and “forward”. Just wondering if either seemed “backward” or “backwards” to you?
      ;-)

  9. In British writing and speech, I see more of the ‘-wards’ endings, but there seems to be a disconnection between American speech and American writing, where a lot of people will say ‘forwards’, but it will appear in books as ‘forward’.

  10. “Towards” is a error that is so commonplace that it has become an acceptable form of the word “toward.” As acceptable as it may become over time, that does not diminish the fact that it is an error. A common error–an acceptable error to some–but an error nonetheless.

    • Señor Paco says:

      Marta, you are probably right, towards was probably first used in error. Although it is possible that someone intentionally misspoke the word toward because they wanted to distinguish themselves from others. I wouldn’t call that an error, I would call that an intentional change in the language (I’m sure you linguists have a name for this). Either way it matters not much, the word has been used, accepted and become even more popular than the original word – thus our language evolves.

      You got me thinking, Marta, ….I’d say that nearly every word in every language is an “error” since they have all evolved from previous words via small changes in pronunciation and/or spelling. I hadn’t thought along those lines before! What do you think?

  11. Vocabulary and composition of language just reflect cultural, educational and linguistic background of person talking or writing.

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