I can admit when a matter of usage or style is more of a pet peeve of mine that a rule, per se. This is especially true in the world of fiction, in which the rules are much more mutable than they might be in, say, technical writing or journalism. So, okay, maybe this is more of a pet peeve of mine, but please indulge me as I bitch about the word toward.

First of all, if you are an American, it’s toward, not towards. If you’re from the U.K., I guess towards is okay, but then you also drive on the wrong side of the road so I’m not sure what I can do for y’all over there.

I can at least kinda back this up:

toward, towards. As prepositions, toward is the more usual form in AmE, and towards the almost invariable form in BrE. But the distribution of the variant is subject to much variation.

The New Fowlers Modern English Usage, 3rd Edition

I hate nothing more than variable variants!

A slightly clearer statement:

toward. A. And towards. In AmE, the preferred form is toward; towards is prevalent in BrE.

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner

Okay, so at least please stop spelling it towards. That additional s is counterrevolutionary.

But even worse than the spelling is it’s use as a passive preposition. Remember, Strunk & White, though they were wrong about a bunch of stuff, advised us to write in the active voice. They weren’t wrong about that, at least. You almost always want to clearly state what your characters are doing in that moment, rather than pushing away—remember when we talked about emotional distance—to describe actions from afar.

Yet I see this all the time:

She walked toward the door.

Think about that. If she’s walking toward the door, that implies a certain general movement more or less in the direction of the door. To me—and I refuse to believe I’m alone in this—when you write She walked toward the door, what you’re telling me is that she doesn’t necessarily want to get to the door, has no particular or immediate interest in the door, but is just sort of going in that general direction.

Now, that may be exactly what you’re trying to say, in which case, leave that sentence as is. But if you want us (your readers) to know that this character is going, on purpose, to the door, for whatever reason, say that:

She walked to the door.

Now we know she wanted to walk to the door, and got there, and did so on purpose.

But what if you want to interrupt her before she actually gets to the door?

She moved for the door, but . . .

Then something happened to stop her getting to the door, but she still set off with intent for the door.

If you’re careful about your characters’ intent then when you do need to use the word toward, that lack of intent will come across. If everyone is constantly moving toward things it’ll either come across as a story full of characters aimlessly wandering about, or your readers will adjust to read toward as to or for then when you need that aimless wandering, toward will no longer work.

Please tell me that makes sense.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. jasperak says:

    I almost feel like this post was directed towards me. 🙂

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