Helen DeWitt writes with a question about "afterward(s)" and "backward(s)":
I've had comments back from my editor on a book that is to come out in late October. He mentioned that when he started going through the document he changed "afterwards" to "afterward" and "backwards" to "backward" but later stopped, so the words could be left as they stood. It might, he thought, be better to be consistent (the text was not entirely consistent).
Much of the book is written in the voice of an American salesman. I ran a couple of searches on Google (since it was not clear why the change would have been suggested in the first place), and found various people claiming that, while both were acceptable, "afterwards" and "backwards" were more characteristic of British usage. I have no idea whether this is true; if so they would be wrong for the character. My slight sense was that, in America, "afterwards" and "backwards" would be more characteristic of an oral, colloquial style (a sense that is slightly strengthened by the fact that most of the first 100 hits for "ass backward" bring up "ass backwards" or "ass-backwards" - though, on the other hand, a search for "ass backwards" gets 638,000 hits, but a search for "ass backward" gets 1,840,000, and while many of the instances without final s are presumably attributive I'm not sure how to find out how many are the s-less adverbial form). If this intuition was right the form with final s would in fact be right for the character. Even if right for "backwards" this might not be true of "afterwards" (or, for that matter, "towards," which also came up). I wondered whether you might be willing to ask readers of LL what they think.
Before going any further, please do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Helen's novel The Last Samurai. Trust me, if you're the sort of person who enjoys reading Language Log, you'll enjoy reading The Last Samurai even more.
Now that you've called your local bookstore, or placed your order on line, we can learn a fair amount about the whole X-ward(s) business with a few quick searches in available corpora. What we learn is complex, helping to explain why Helen and her editor are unsure about things.
- The choice between X-ward and X-wards is subject to variation in all regions and registers.
- In the case of back- and after-, American English uses a higher proportion of -ward forms than British English does (and the proportion of afterward forms in British English is very low).
- In the case of backward(s), in both American and British English, conversation shows a lower proportion of -ward forms (and thus a higher proportion of -wards forms) than academic prose does.
- In the case of afterward(s), American English also shows more -wards forms in conversation than in academic prose, while British English seems to go the opposite way, though there are too few -wards forms overall to be confident about the relationship.
- At least in American English, these patterns seem to be stable over time.
Some more quantitative results follow. ["BNC" is the British National Corpus (100 million words); "COCA" is the Corpus of Contemporary American English at BYU (400 million words); "LDC CTS" is the LDC's collection of conversational telephone speech (25 million words)].
Summary for backward(s):
Summary for afterward(s):
There are a number of other -ward(s) words to look at; and no doubt there are effects of the house style at different publications; part of speech (adjective vs. adverb) no doubt makes a difference; and as Helen notes, particular expressions (like "ass backward(s)") no doubt also have their influence.
One more piece of quantitative evidence — in COHA, the U.S. percentage of backward usage in decades from 1840-1850 to 2000-2008 has remained quite stable:
81 75 79 77 83 82 82 86 87 81 76 76 70 75 78 72 78
The OED explains that
In English the history of -wards as an advb. suffix is identical with that of -ward; beside every adv. in -ward there has always existed (at least potentially) a parallel formation in -wards, and vice versa. The two forms are so nearly synonymous (the general sense of the advs. being ‘in the direction indicated by the first element of the compound’) that the choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form. Sometimes, however, the difference in the form of the suffix corresponds to a difference in the shade of meaning conveyed, though it would not be possible to give any general rule that would be universally accepted. Where the meaning to be expressed includes the notion of manner as well as direction of movement, -wards is required, as in ‘to walk backwards’, ‘to write backwards’. In other instances the distinction seems to be that -wards is used when the adv. is meant to express a definite direction in contrast with other directions: thus we say ‘it is moving forwards if it is moving at all’, but ‘to come forward’, not ‘forwards’ (see further the note on forward adv.); so ‘to travel eastward’ expresses generally the notion of travelling in the direction of an eastern goal, ‘to travel eastwards’ implies that the direction is thought of as contrasted with other possible directions. Hence -wards seems to have an air of precision which has caused it to be avoided in poetical use.
There appears to be no appreciable difference in meaning between the prepositions toward adj. and adv. and towards prep. and adv.; the latter is now, at least in British use, more common colloquially.
The OED's rather tentative effort to create a sometimes-categorical difference in meaning does not seem to stand up to trans-Atlantic test. Thus BNC has 1 instance of "walk backward" versus 15 of "walk backwards" — but COCA has 25 instances of "walk backward" versus only 17 of "walk backwards".