One show I love to binge watch is “The Good Place.” Near the end of season one (I haven’t seen season two yet, so no spoilers!), one of the main characters, Michael (played by the severely underrated Ted Danson) laments his impending demise. There was so much left to do! …Get his hair wet! Pull a hamstring! Eat a saltine! Learn the difference between toward and towards!
That’s actually a common grammar question, although not one people usually think about in the moments before their death. It seems like one of those things that should be used correctly, but no one cares too much about, like saying, “Can I use the restroom?” instead of, “May I use the restroom?” or “I’m doing good,” instead of, “I’m doing well,” (that last one is a pet peeve of Weird Al, though, so don’t say that in front of him).
Some people want to know the difference for the sake of proper grammar, others for the ability to lord it over the less-informed (I don’t judge). If you fall into either of those buckets, or if you just enjoy reading my witticisms, I’ll let you in on the secret difference between toward and towards: there isn’t one.
Toward and Towards are Both Correct
You’re probably in shock, so take a moment to compose yourself, and then learn the hard truth: toward and towards are interchangeable. Grammar Girl says so, Grammarist says so, Dictionary.com says so, and so do I.
That might be a disappointing answer, and if you really want to put a rule to it, the generally accepted difference is that toward is used more often by Americans, while towards is more often seen in the UK. But even that isn’t exactly true, as both groups use both variations interchangeably. (Sorry.)
The History of Toward and Towards
“Then why are there two options?” you might ask. “This is driving me bananas!” you might also add. As Merriam-Webster says in their article, Is it ‘Toward’ or ‘Towards’?, “the history of a usage rule that will drive you toward(s) a nervous breakdown.” I’ve read the article, you guys—and it does. Basically, the reason the ‘s’ is optional is because the world isn’t fair and English is tricky.
The etymology of the words date back to the ninth century—and even back then, during a time where people were pretty picky about their case endings, the two were interchangeable. In 1867, a man named Edward S. Gould decided that it was time to pick a team and said toward should be used.
His reasoning wasn’t exactly based in actual fact. He claimed that, etymologically speaking, toward was used first and the added ‘s’ was some weird error that continued to get used. (It wasn’t. He was wrong). Edward’s fellow Americans said, “Sounds good—let’s use toward.”
But in 1929, British citizen H.W. Fowler wrote in the Dictionary of Modern English Usage that towards should be used in prepositions, while toward “… tends to become literary on the one hand and provincial on the other.”
Thus, the British began using towards while Americans stuck with toward. Then the internet came, brought us all a little closer together, and nobody cared about which one was correct anymore because there were cat videos to be watched.
I wish there was some juicy explanation, but there isn’t. Maybe you could pick up on a little 1900s grammar burn directed at Americans from the H.W. Fowler quote, but that’s about it. Whether you use toward or towards is a matter of preference and style, so in a rare moment of grammatical “eh, do what you want,” YOU get to choose.
Be consistent in your usage, of course—that’s just good writing—and use the word that your audience (who are probably much less informed on the history of toward/towards as you are) will see as being “correct,” if only to prevent them from sending you emails about your “typo.” Or maybe do the opposite and use the one they’re least familiar with so when you get the typo email, you can smugly forward this blog and gloat in your grammar victory (again—I don’t judge).
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