The Grammarphobia Blog

A case of backwardness

Q: I’m curious about the usage of “backward” and “backwards” as adverbs. Are they interchangeable? My summer-school teacher didn’t seem to know and I knew you would.

A: In Britain, the adverb is commonly spelled “backwards,” but the usual spelling in American English is without the final “s.” However, both ways are correct—with or without the “s.” The one you choose is a matter of taste.

Interestingly, the usual American spelling of the adverb is older than the “s” version commonly seen in Britain, going back to around the year 1300, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s first citation for the adverb “backwards” is from 1513.

One last point: although the adverb can be spelled either way, the adjective “backward” (as in “a backward glance” or “their backward technology”) doesn’t have an “s” in standard English.

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