Toward(s?) a better understanding

Hi all, sorry about the delay in getting new posts out to you. Let’s get to it:

There are many well-documented differences between British and American English. Even those unacquainted with linguistics can point out some of the more obvious ones: color/colour, apartment/flat, spilled/spilt, and plenty more. Lynne Murphy, an American linguist abroad in the UK, maintains the wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language and writes about how language differs across the pond.

But some American-versus-British rules are less readily apparent. For example, for years, I struggled with whether to write “toward” or “towards.” A few years ago, Grammar Girl taught me that the rule was simple: “toward” is used in the US and “towards” is used in the UK.

The British newspaper The Guardian writes in its Style Guide:

-ward, wards. Contemporary usage … suggests that when it is an adjective a word like upward, downward, backward or forward should not end in s, but when it is an adverb it should.

I checked The Economist‘s Style Guide and found that it was silent on the issue, but it did write “forward” rather than “forwards” twice within the Style Guide itself. The Economist is published out of London and two-thirds of its journalists are based there, so I wonder whether there is or isn’t internal consistency on the use of the –ward(s) suffix.

According to a commenter on the Grammar Girl website, “toward” is correct AP style. (The AP Stylebook doesn’t have free access, so I can’t confirm.)

I wondered why we had that difference and whether it had always been that way. So I checked out the Google Ngram data for both American and British corpora. The data ended up raising more questions than it answered, so I’m hoping for more well-informed readers to suggest explanations for the patterns below.

Here is the frequency of “toward” versus “towards” in British English from 1800 to 2000.

It’s clear that “towards” has always been favored over “toward” in Britain during this period. There does seem to be a slight shift after 1980, with “toward” becoming more popular than “towards.”

Here is the American data from the same period, which is more interesting:

It appears that “toward” supplanted “towards” as the preferred spelling around 1900. The data show a steady decline in the frequency of “towards” starting around 1840. This trend is strange: why did the spelling preference change at all?

First, a little background: the Oxford English Dictionary regards “toward” and “towards” as variants of the same word. Their etymology is closely related. Similarly, the OED considers other –ward(s) words as variants of each other as well: e.g., forward(s), backward(s), onward(s). It also notes that while there is no difference in definition between –ward and –wards, there may be a slight semantic difference that ascribes more of a sense of “movement” to –wards. This slight difference is disputed, even by the OED authors.

The OED says:

In English the history of -wards as an [adverbial] 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 … 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.

It then goes on to observe the preference of Americans for –ward and Brits for –wards.

Two possible explanations for the American switch from “towards” to “toward” popped into my head at first.

The first was that Noah Webster’s dictionary, which set out determinedly American spellings for the nascent United States, expressed a preference for “toward.” His dictionary was first published in 1828. I couldn’t find a reliable online source for his original text, so maybe a reader with access to the text can clarify whether this is true. I’m still skeptical whether this is what drove the change. More famous changes like “colour” to “color” happened quicker, according to Google Ngram.

Another possibility depends on the OED’s observation that “the choice between [toward and towards] is mostly determined by some notion of euphony.”

According to The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, rhotic accents (accents that pronounce the R in, e.g., “father”) became prestigious in the United States around the 1870s. It may have simply been more euphonic (more pleasing to the ear) for rhotic speakers to pronounce “toward” rather than “towards” — the former has just two consonants in a cluster, whereas the latter would have a three-consonant cluster, making it more difficult to pronounce. This, too, seems tenuous, because written language changes slower than spoken language and Google Ngram depends on data culled from written texts.

I can’t seem to think of any other explanations, but I encourage readers to share their thoughts below.