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  • Sandeep Prasanna 5:10 am on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: american english, ap stylebook, british english, differences between british and american english, , style guide, toward, towards   

    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.

    • Jonathon 11:20 am on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I suspect that the American preference for toward is more of an artifact of copyediting than anything else. I see towards in unedited writing and hear it in speech quite often. And as a copyeditor, I know that a lot of editors have been trained to strike out that supposedly superfluous s.

      I’ve got a copy of Webster’s 1828 dictionary in my office, and it actually combines toward, towards in its entries, so it apparently wasn’t Webster that kicked off the American preference.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:29 pm on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for checking Webster’s dictionary out. The copyediting makes sense, but it still doesn’t answer why Americans suddenly preferred “toward” over “towards”… a desire for efficiency can explain it, but surely the Brits like being efficient too, right?

    • Kevin 8:33 pm on March 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      >> The Economist is published out of London <<

      What springs immediately to the mind of this British English speaker on reading the foregoing sentence is the thought: "Oh no, it's not: The Economist is published IN London! "Out of London", to me, means "Not in London" — as in "Our facilites are located out of London, in Staffordshire" (i.e at least 200 kilometres distant from the capital) .

      Is this yet another transatlantic difference? How exactly, in (presumably) US English, does "published out of London" differ in meaning from "published in London"?

      • Sandeep Prasanna 10:17 pm on March 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Good question. To me, “published out of London” implies distribution outward from a central location. I guess it implies more movement, and (to me) seems particularly suited to describe a periodical like The Economist. But I could have (and maybe should have) written “published in London” instead.

        So I don’t know if I’m wrong. I also don’t think it’s an American thing. I did a quick google search of “published out of” and I found a couple of other examples: “published out of New York City,” “published out of Delhi,” “published out of Alphadelphia.” This usage is definitely in the minority, though. It doesn’t even register as a blip on Google Ngram compared to “published in”: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=published+out+of%2Cpublished+in&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

        Also, if I wanted to say that the facilities were located in Staffordshire, I would probably say “outside of London.”

        tl;dr – I don’t think my usage is wrong, but it’s not common.

  • The Diacritics 11:59 am on December 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: british english, , , statutory interpretation, wordplay   

    Why context matters 

    (posted by John)

    I was thinking I’d write about why context matters in the interpretation of law, but I decided I’ve been doing enough law-related things of late. Nonetheless, perhaps as a sign that I’ll never escape, it was my torts professor Guido Calabresi who made this observation in class recently. He put it this way:

    Why does context matter? Because “You should’ve passed, dummy” means something different between bridge hands and at halftime of the Superbowl. [Not to mention when visiting a potential benefactor at the hospital…]

    -Guido Calabresi

    He was indeed talking about using context to interpret laws and apply them to fact patterns. But today I’d just like to point out ten common phrases that are important to take in context:

    1. “I really need to go.” Pretty self-explanatory.
    2. “When are you getting off today?” Pardon the innuendo–let’s hope you’re talking about when they’re leaving work.
    3. “Let’s take a shot.” … on an investment? To the endzone before halftime? Or is it time to head to the bar?
    4. “He’s stupid.” This is an interesting newish bit of slang. A person can be “stupid” at something, meaning they are extraordinarily good at it. I’ve often heard it in the context of sports–someone being stupid good at basketball. I’ve even heard “He is stupid smart.”
    5. “He’s nasty” or “He’s dirty.” Correspondents of the previous example, these again are often used in the context of sports to describe someone’s extraordinary ability. They also have some obvious other meanings.
    6. “I’m late.” …
    7. “I’m sitting on something big.” If someone doesn’t know your part of the press corps…
    8. “He’s no longer with us.” A nice way of saying that someone was fired?
    9. If you’re an American in England: “She seldom wears pants to work.” Pants are the British word for underwear.
    10. “I beat her.” I hope you were playing tennis or something.

    There is much more to be said on this subject. But not by me, at least not right now. Maybe others have good phrases to add to the mix?

    • John Cowan 12:22 pm on December 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      You can’t really understand North American English unless you know exactly what Johnny went to the bathroom in his pants means.

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