MOVING FORWARD WITH BACKWARD

As a copy editor, I’ve changed the word backwards to backward probably ten thousand times. Like the word towards, which I whined about in detail for other reasons, the difference between backward and backwards is likewise symbolized by the Atlantic Ocean—the line of demarcation between the two Englishes.

Don’t believe me? Okay. I have sources:

Grammarist:

Backward means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backward may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. While technically backwards is interchangeable with backward, the overwhelmingly preferred spelling in the United States is backward, whether it is used as an adjective or an adverb.

Grammar Girl:

The way I remember the difference is to think that Americans like shortcuts. For example, I’m willing to bet that we eat in our cars more than British people do. So think about how Americans like shortcuts, and think about how we lopped the s off backwards to make it shorter. In the US, we use the shorter word: backward.

Writing Explained:

Backward is an adjective that means regressive or underdeveloped. It is also a directional adverb in American English. In British English, it becomes backwards as a directional adverb, so keep your audience in mind when choosing one of these words.

And one of the very best sources, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage Edited by R.W. Burchfield:

Backward(s) in most adverbial uses: backward and backwards are interchangeable, but usage varies subtly from person to person and from region to region. It is broadly true to say that in North America backward seems to be somewhat more usual than backwards and in Britain the other way round. As an adjective, the only form used is backward (without a backward glance).

So there you have it, my fellow Americans. It’s backward, leaving off the s for freedom!

Taking this a step farther, I also sometimes see backward used improperly, where the word back is actually the better choice.

If you’re standing facing north, say, and place your foot behind you, moving southward while still facing north, you are moving backward.

If you’re facing north and someone pushes you by placing his hands on your chest, causing you to fall in the direction of south, you have been pushed back, even if your face is still directed to the north.

Here are a few examples that might help:

Bronwyn, having pushed Galen back on his ass, walked away without a backward glance.

Galen, realizing Bronwyn would never change her backward ways, got up and went home without looking back.

“Let’s move the noon meeting back to two p.m.,” Bronwyn said into her communicator. “I think my relationship with Galen just took a big step backward.”

Fine distinction, yes, but no one ever said this was going to be easy!

 

—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, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to MOVING FORWARD WITH BACKWARD

  1. Dan says:

    First up I really like your website and often find interesting things here.

    Secondly Arrrrrrgh! I don’t want to be annoying on the internet but…

    “So there you have it, my fellow Americans. It’s backward, leaving off the s for freedom!”

    This is the internet! We are not all American, you have a wider readership than one country, so the advice is not actually correct for all of us 😉

    As a Brit, this post explains why “backward” always looks *very* awkward to me — it is.

    So if some one does, in the future, criticise me for using “backwards” rather than “backward” I can point here and say, “no I am correct in my usage”. I am not sure that is what you had in mind by this post though…

    Thirdly, keep up the good work.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Indeed, the whole world is welcome here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, but every once in a while, I have to talk American! Still, I should have added: “And for my British friends, leave the s on for Queen and Country!”

  2. I appreciate your rigor as an editor, but perhaps you take it a bit far 😉 It doesn’t matter how hard you try, editors will never be able to control the evolution of language. Prescriptive grammar is a lie; always has been. People speak the way they speak, rules be damned. The grammar police are always decades behind what is actually being spoken. Americans do say words like “backwards” and “anyways,” which means it is as proper as anything else in the grammar book. It’s authentic language, and has its place is writing, particularly fiction which uses language to convey characterization in both dialogue and narration. If my character or narrator is from the American Midwest, I should probably use “backwards” and “anyways” over their *proper* alternatives, because that’s how people there speak. I think folks can take prescriptive grammar rules a bit too far. I once had an editor highlight the word “anyways” in my manuscript because wasn’t proper grammar. She seemed to miss the fact that the word was in dialogue and put there on purpose. That being said, I would be more inclined to follow the old grammar book in academic writing which isn’t centered on a narrative voice.

    • Philip Athans says:

      You’re almost right. First, I neglected to add what I always try to remember to add when discussing rules of grammar, etc. and that’s: In dialog, all bets are off. You’re absolutely correct that people, absolutely including myself, don’t speak in some kind of perfect English. You’re also correct in that there really is no such thing as “perfect English”–it is, indeed, a living, evolving language. However, there’s a big difference between breaking a rule on purpose for any desired effect and not knowing the rule in the first place. Good writing needs to reach as many people as possible, which means we need a certain shared lexicon, hence the rules of grammar, spelling, and usage. Trust me, I have no illusions that I’m going to halt American English in its tracks–and I don’t want to–but at the same time, saying “there are no rules” is just not going to be good enough if you want to be read by more than a close group of colloquial neighbors. And besides, why not just decide to say backward and anyway instead of backwards and anyways? Why be incorrect on purpose?

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