Are "Toward" & "Towards" Really Interchangeable?

2 min read

Short answer: yes.

The somewhat longer answer involves a wild adventure through the evolution of the English language through the British Empire. OK, well, not wild exactly, but interesting, surely! We have graphs.

As with their prepositional brethren "backward," "frontward," "upward," and "downward," whether you decide to include the "s" in "toward" or not, you will be correct. But why?

A Closer Look

Though there is no universally correct choice, the spelling depends on the culture of the writer. American writers favor "toward," while the British tend to use "towards." The same goes across the board for the collection of directional prepositions.

Don't believe us? Let's look at the data. This graph is from the Google Ngram Viewer, used to graph the presence of strings of certain characters (AKA words) between the years 1500 and 2008. You can refine the searches by regional language, as shown here, where American English is specified.

As the graph illustrates, the shift in the sans "s" version is clear. Around the early 1900s, you can see the preferred spelling reverse in the American English lexicon.

But why this reversal? Merriam-Webster offers a little clarity:

"The first call to arms that we can find in the usage literature is the Edward S. Gould's collected musings on usage and abusage called Good English, published in 1867. In an article that is specifically about 'toward' and 'towards,' Gould quotes a bit of (not entirely spurious) etymology, notes that the Old English -weard has given us a number of words, and then claims that the addition of -s to these words is an 'innovation' without merit."

What It All Means

To summarize: It was deemed excessive and/or vulgar to attach the "s" to "toward," so American writers gradually stopped using that form. So much drama over one letter.

Conversely, when British English is specified in the Ngram search, you can see that the usage of "towards" has remained relatively stable for three centuries.

At the end of the day, either version is grammatically correct, so go ahead and include that vulgar "s" if you're feeling British today. This may be the only case where the British version is more scandalous than the American.

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