Tacking ‘s’ on to some directional words

“The electorate seems to be moving towards the right,” one media site said after a conservative candidate won a recent primary. Another site quoted a more liberal thinker as saying that a backlash against Democrats “is sending our nation backwards in time.”

And a number of English “experts” were probably “besides” themselves in worrying about the barbarians amongst them.

None of those expressions are “wrong” (and there’s nothing wrong with using “none” as a plural, by the way).

But there’s wrong and then there’s “more right.” If those statements had been made in England, not an eyebrow would have been raised. But in the United States, the “s” should usually be jettisoned. It’s not a capital offense to follow the British, though.

Let’s put forward “toward.” The major style guides advise against using “towards.” But that hasn’t stopped publications that ostensibly follow those guides from letting “towards” slip through upward of dozens of times. Garner’s Modern American Usage says the battle is all but lost—it lists “towards” at Stage 4 on the Language-Change Index, meaning the only ones who will object to “towards” are fussbudgets and strict followers of style guides from the Associated Press, The New York Times, and University of Chicago.

But there is less support for an “s” ending to most other “directional” words—the ones ending in “ward”—such as downward, cityward, skyward, and outward. Whether they’re less acceptable because they’re less common, or less common because they’re less acceptable is irrelevant. It sounds odd to say “the economy is in a downwards cycle.”

The same reasoning (and lack of an “s”) can and should be applied to other words that indicate placement or direction—something is “inside” the room, not “insides”; worried people are “beside” themselves, not “besides.”

But wait! There are exceptions! (Of COURSE there are! This is English!)

For example, Garner’s says that “backwards” is perfectly fine, though less common than “backward.” (“It’s anomalous,” the book says, “that many people who say forward also say backwards”)

And when some of those words are used in a sense other than directional, that final “s” is required, not optional. “Besides,” for example, is the proper way to spell the adverb meaning “in addition to” or “as an exception,” as in “I didn’t vote. Besides, I didn’t know who was running.” It’s one reason to keep “beside,” the directional adverb meaning “alongside” as a separate word.

While we’re going in that direction, the substitutions of “amidst” for “amid” and “amongst” for “among” are fine, but sound so pretentious and British to many that using them could give you a stiff upper lip.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.