These three words sometimes kinda mean the same things, and sometimes kinda mean different things, but as an editor, I see them used more or less interchangeably almost all of the time. That’s a lot of kindas and most of the timeses there, so let’s see if we can get to the truth of when to use back, when backward makes more sense, and whether or not backwards is even a word.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Third Edition), Edited by R.W. Burchfield, says:

backward(s) 1 In most adverbial uses backward and backwards are interchangeable, but usage varies subtly from region to region. It is broadly true to say that in North America backward seems to be somewhat more usual than backwards, and in Britain the other way round.

2 As an adjective the only form used is backward

This says to me that, if you’re an American, it must always be backward in any case, otherwise you might be accused of counterrevolutionary thinking. At least, so says Oxford. So then what of a primary source from our side of the pond? A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner lumps them together with other directional words:

Words ending in -ward may be either adjectives or adverbs, whereas words ending in -wards, common in BrE [British English], may be adverbs only.

Two exceptions in AmE are the adverbs afterwards and backwards, which are almost universally used in preference to afterward and backward. It’s anomalous that most people say forward but backwards.

So then so much for the US vs. UK part of that. Who to believe?

I’ve had -ward drummed into me so thoroughly that I have to side with Fowler on this one, and US English copy edits from me will tend to show that. Grammarist sort of backs me up:

Backward means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backward may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. While technically backwards is interchangeable with backward, the overwhelmingly preferred spelling in the United States is backward, whether it is used as an adjective or an adverb.

Backwards also means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backwards may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. In British English, the use of either backward or backwards is technically correct, however the overwhelming preference is to use backward when in need of an adjective andbackwards when in need of an adverb.

One last source, from my handy Apple dictionary app…

In US English, the adverb form is sometimes spelled backwards ( the ladder fell backwards), but the adjective is almost always backward ( a backward glance). Directional words using the suffix -ward tend to have no s ending in US English, although backwards is more common than afterwardstowards, or forwards. The s ending often (but not always) appears in the phrases backwards and forwards and bending over backwards. In British English, the spelling backwards is more common than backward.

…seems to edge onto a side with Garner, so now it’s back to tied at 2-2. The fact that there are a lot of qualifications in all this: tends to be, sometimes spelled, and so on, falls short of the hard and fast rule we might be looking for.

Let’s try a few examples:

Bronwyn walked backwards three steps.

Because backwards modified the verb walked, so is an adverb. Unless you’re me and that s makes you bristle, in which case Bronwyn walked backward three steps, is still fine—or, for this copy editor, at least, still preferred for God Fearing Americans.

Galen and Bronwyn couldn’t countenance the orcs’ backward custom of selling their own children into slavery.

Because in this case, backward modifies a noun: custom, so is an adjective. Easy enough.

But then how do we account for the word back? When does that make more sense than backward(s)? Setting aside the noun forms of back (describing the part of a body, for instance) and the obvious verbs: Galen was backed up against the wall, here’s what my dictionary app says:

adverb toward the rear; in the opposite direction from the one that one is facing or traveling: she moved back a pace | she walked away without looking back• expressing movement of the body into a reclining position: he leaned back in his chair | sit back and relax• at a distance away: I thought you were miles back | the officer pushed the crowd back• (back ofNorth American informal behind: he knew that other people were back of himexpressing a return to an earlier or normal condition: she put the book back on the shelf | drive to Montreal and back | I went back to sleep | he was given his job back• at a place previously left or mentioned: the folks back home are counting on him• fashionable again: sideburns are backin or into the past: he made his fortune back in 1955in return: they wrote back to me.

Got it. Though I will maintain to my dying breath that sideburns, like selling your own children into slavery, are and will always be backward, consider:

Bronwyn jumped back to avoid the spear thrust.

This is where I see a lot of backward/back confusion:

Bronwyn jumped backwards to avoid the spear thrust.

Though backwards is the previously determined correct adjective form, let me at least fall back on the idiom to make a case for Bronwyn jumping back instead of backwards. It just sounds right, doesn’t it? In this case, what’s being described is the same as the dictionary app’s example of the adverbial back.

And you know what? Even with all the rules quoted above, in the end, if it doesn’t sound right, but is technically correct, will your readers know the difference and end up reading the technically correct form as a mistake?

Maybe—in fact, this sort of confusion of “correct grammar and usage” happens all the time in an ever-evolving and highly regional language like English.

So, hmm… I guess, good luck, but no matter what, keep your writing moving forward!

Or is it forwards?

—Philip Athans

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