toward(s) and other ward(s)

The interview I did with the Chicago Manual of Style people has brought me quite a few new readers. (Not to mention a 'Hey! I saw you in this newsletter I subscribe to!" during [BrE] the school run. Next thing you know, it'll be the paparazzi.) One of these new readers is Linda, a Washington, DC editor, who wrote to ask if I'd covered toward and towards. And since I've been rather embarrassed for some time that I haven't covered this, Linda's request has gone to the front of the (AmE) line/(BrE) queue.

The first thing to say about toward and towards is that both are found in both Englishes. What is different is which one is more common and standard in each place. In the US, toward is more common, particularly in published work; in the UK, towards is. This is shown in the ratios of the two variants in each dialect. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has about 6 toward for every 1 towards. But the British National Corpus favo(u)rs towards 23:1.

Towards is one of the things that I resisted for a long time after moving to the UK--because of the associations I had for it in AmE. My first teaching job was teaching remedial (AmE) freshman composition in Illinois, and that was where I first reali{z/s}ed that I was a toward-sayer but that there were a lot of American towards-sayers. And I took it upon myself beat the 's' out of these people. I perceived the 's' as something that marked people as unsophisticated hicks. Most advice you can find on the internet these days will tell you that it's fine to use either. I was a young east-coaster in the midwest. Mea maxima culpa.

So, when I came to the UK and was surrounded by those esses, I just had to grit my teeth, much as I've learn{ed/t} to do with the BrE use of reckon (which says 'HICK' in capital letters to my northeastern US self) and whilst (which says 'PRETENTIOUS' to my US self). Live and let live, speak and let speak, as we're taught in Linguist School. [If you want to talk about those two, please use the comments sections at their linked posts.] These days, if I'm writing for a British publication or if I'm proofreading for a British writer, I do use towards.

The reason I've not done toward and towards in seven years of blogging is that I knew it'd bring up all the other -ward(s) words--and that means work, because they're not as straightforward. Toward(s) is almost always a preposition. Something like backward(s) can be an adverb or an adjective. In my dialect, I'd allow the 's' much more easily for an adverb than for an adjective and I'd allow the 's' more for the figurative use of the adjective than the literal. You may have different instincts about these:
  • Adjective (literal):  a backward(s) motion
  • Adjective (figurative): a backward(s) idea
  • Adverb:  You've got that on backward(s)
I am not going to do an in-depth analysis of all of these. Picking out figurative and non-figurative meaning would be just too labo(u)r-intensive. So, at this point, I'm just going to look at adverbs (since they're more like the preposition toward(s) anyhow). I'm using the Global Web-Based English corpus for this because I suspect that there's a high risk for mislabel(l)ing (or 'mis-tagging', in the corpus linguistics parlance) the parts-of-speech of these particular words. By using GlobWE, I at least know that the same 'tagger' did the tagging, so any mistakes should be comparable. In the table, the percentages are within-dialect. So the AmE numbers add up to 100% in each row and so do the BrE ones.

AdverbsAmE wardAmE wardsBrE wardBrE wards
back-23%77%13%87%
down-67%33%17%83%
for-98%2%94%6%
in-78%22%31% 69%
on-59%41%20%80%
out-78%22%37%63%
up-40%60%13%87%


So we can see here that:
  • Both dialects prefer backwards and (especially strongly) forward.
  • With the exception of forward, BrE prefers -wards, in keeping with its preference for towards.
  • With the exception of backwards and upwards, AmE tends to prefer the 's'-less version, in keeping with its preference for toward
  • AmE's preference for onward over onwards doesn't seem very strong, though.
Showing you the percentages made the numbers clearer, but it hides some interesting things. For instance, Americans use onward(s) (1868 examples, counting both variants) a lot less than the British (5233 examples). Why? A quick glance at the examples shows that many of the UK examples were things like
from 1833 onwards
version 1.5.2 onwards

from primary school onwards
AmE would tend to use on as an adverb in such cases, rather than the -ward(s) form.  So, for example GlobWE has 11 examples of from 2008 onwards and 5 of from 2008 on in BrE. Those numbers are reversed in the AmE portion of the corpus.

The other thing that interests me in those numbers relates to my day job, in which I study antonymy (opposite relations). Why do forward in AmE upwards have different endings from their opposites? I can't come up with any semantic explanation. I'll just have to conclude with something I've been heard to say elsewhere (and may be heard to say again in Ashford and Ealing in September):
If you're looking for logic in vocabulary, then you're looking in the wrong place.

In other news: My second (and last for the time being) contribution to the Numberphile video series is now available--on differences in how numbers are said and used in AmE and BrE. If you're interested in more on that subject, here's the link to my other 'numbers' posts.



62 comments

  1. I've never seen the "foreward" spelling in AmE or BrE. Do you mean "forward"?

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  2. Aha! That's why those numbers were so weird. I'm taking this down and re-doing it!

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  3. Fascinating, as usual. I've noted that rhotic speakers omit the first /r/ in "forward" so that it sounds like "toward the foe" to me, rather than "straight ahead". May be a regional thing, but I don't think so.

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  4. Thanks for the quick correction, Nancy.

    Since I was searching only for adverbs in the corpus, I didn't get the noun 'foreward', so that meant that the numbers didn't change much once I corrected the spelling. But it's much, much better to have it right!

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  5. I've found that in unedited American writing, the ratio of toward to towards is about 1:1. It's really copy editors who drive it up by deleting the -s.

    link (subscription required)

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  6. Based on your anecdote, is there a regional, midwest difference? Coming from Illinois I think I use a fair amount of these examples with the s, especially in spoken language. They definitely don't sound wrong. Would have to look at my writing to see if I edit them out there.

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  7. There may be regional differences, but I couldn't easily find something on them, so I didn't go down that route when writing. But I think it might have more to do with how much time one spends with edited text.

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  8. @n0aaa

    I've heard the "foe-ward" pronunciation from Midwesterners.

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  9. @Lynne:

    Sorry to be OT, but have you covered "a long way / a long ways" anywhere?

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  10. Nope. There is a search box in the upper lefthand corner of the page, if you ever want to check such things.

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  11. Is the hymn "Onward, Christian soldiers" known in the USA? It is definitely "Onward", not "Onwards"!

    While we add "s" to -ward words, I understand (but don't know how you look things up to prove it) that Americans tend to add "s" to -where words, which UK English doesn't.

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  12. What about pronunciation? Toward and towards can vary in pronunciation. More or less like it's spelled or a shorted form, /tɔːɹd/ (homophonous with "toured" for me). Do both pronunciations exist in British English as well?

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  13. @Mrs Redboots: 'Onward, Christian soldiers' is sung in some denominations in the US. But 'wheres'? I'm not sure what you're talking about. There's non-standard, dialectal 'anywheres', but you wouldn't find that in print, other than in dialogue. There's no 'everywheres'.

    @ek: There will be variation in both dialects within and between speakers. Definitely between dialects because the vowels are different. You can hear the pronunciations in a lot of places on the internet. Forvo has disappointingly few for this word:
    http://www.forvo.com/word/towards/
    http://www.forvo.com/word/toward/#en
    Oxford Advanced Learner's dict has a /w/-less pronunciation for North American:
    http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/towards

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  14. As a footnote, I'd see a semantic difference in BrE between a backward idea/society (=outdated, regressive) and a backwards one (=topsy-turvy, back-to-front). Could that apply in AmE?

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  15. "Onward Christian Soldiers" was of course written by a Brit -- in 1865. "Onward!" sounds a bit literary or archaic in BrE now, without the -s. Onwards and upwards!

    I idly wonder whether forms like "everywheres" may start to appear in keeping with the trend for coining informal adverbs in -s: "simples!", "laters!"

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  16. Re pronunciation of "towards", the first three pronunciations given in OED are, amusingly enough, /ˈtəʊədz/ /ˈtɔːədz/ and /tɔədz/; /təˈwɔːdz/ only squeaks in in fourth place even though I'd have thought it was universal in BrE and the first three long extinct. But JC Wells adds /tɔː(r)dz/ and for AmE /twɔːdz/ and even /twoʊdz/.

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  17. The taft Concordance of Blues Lyrics has no examples of anywheres or everywheres. But there's this:

    If I had a-listened : what my mother said
    I might have been rolling : somewheres in a folding bed


    and this:

    I got a rock for my pillow : treetop for my bed
    I ain't got nowheres : to lay my weary head


    Both are from the same obscure singer, Joe Evans, who seems to have been from Tennessee.

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  18. n0aaa and vp, are you saying that for you there is a similar vowel in 'foe' and the first syllable of 'forward'? I am a non-rhotic speaker but 'foeward' and 'forward' have very different vowel sounds.

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  19. Onwards and upwards is not usually said in any great seriousness. Upwards alone can be downright bathetic in deadpan a Yorkshire accent in this recitation by Marriott Edgar.

    First remind yourself of Longfellow's Excelsior. Then compare this.

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  20. Except for "toward", these are two-syllable words with stress on the first syllable. "Toward" can be one syllable, or (maybe, it seems to me, in the more pompous sort of British speech, and to the annoyance of some purists) two syllables with stress on the second.

    And are we forgetting "heavenward", "windward", "leeward" (which I am told might be said "loo-erd"), ... ?

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  21. @ RWMG
    n0aaa and vp, are you saying that for you there is a similar vowel in 'foe' and the first syllable of 'forward'?

    In some American pronunciations, yes. I've heard it from the midwest.

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  22. @ RWMG
    n0aaa and vp, are you saying that for you there is a similar vowel in 'foe' and the first syllable of 'forward'?

    In some American pronunciations, yes. I've heard it from the midwest.


    To clarify, this is not my own pronunciation, nor is it the pronunciation of most Americans I know. I'm aware that it isn't the standard non-rhotic realization. I have heard "foe-ward" from a small number of Americans, all otherwise rhotic.

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  23. As far as I can tell the word "untoward" never takes an s (yes, that's a dangerous thing to say), and it's a strange word, anyway. You will know all about this, Lynne, being a scholar of antonymy: it looks like an antonym but as far as I can tell doesn't act as one, being an adjective and never (?) a preposition.

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  24. Picky

    There has been a preposition untoward, but it was a very different creation: not un + toward but unto + ward, and so meaning much the same as toward(s).

    The OED records it as used by John Gower in1390, but then by nobody since. If it had survived into Modern English would we now be saying untowards?

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  25. empty

    Also homeward(s). And the quartet northward(s), southward(s), eastward(s), westward(s).

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  26. The reason I've not done toward and towards...

    While it's probably a subject for another post, the use of I've not here is interesting. I never ran across this usage from an American speaker or writer until about twenty years ago, although I had heard it used by the British. I, like everyone I knew, always used I haven't.

    In the mid-'90s, I've not started popping up on listserves and newsgroups. It seems as if I started hearing it spoken (by Americans) within the past decade at the very most. It continues to interest me because the uncontracted form of both phrases is exactly the same, so the choice of a contracted version must be do to something other than denotation.

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  27. @empty

    I [BrE, recreational sailor] definitely pronounce leeward as loo-erd (actually, more loow-erd, but never loo-werd). I think it is the same in AmE.

    I note that sailors also pronounce "forward" as for'ard in nautical contexts (so much so that in reported speech of sailors it is normally spelt for'ard, although the same writers don't spell out loo'erd).

    Oh, and I pronounce toward with 2 syllables.

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  28. Picky

    It may be somewhat untowards, but untoward does occasionally take an "s" (if only in that phrase).

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  29. @ Rachel Ganz:

    Yes, I was a bit rash alleging that. Interestingly I see the OED has "untowards" as Obs.

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  30. @Picky, @ Rachel Ganz:

    The uses of "untowards" that first came to my mind were "something untowards" and "nothing untowards" - as used in stock phrases such as "I hope nothing untowards has happened".

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  31. Empty and Graham - I (AmE recreational sailor) pronounce leeward loo-werd or lew-erd, but probably not loo-erd. And never with an -s, although i'd put it on towards, backwards, etc. more often than not. I've heard lee-ward once or twice, though never but never from sailors.

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  32. Is there any parallel with -about(s) words?

    These are hereabout~hereabouts, thereabout~thereabouts, whereabout~whereabouts

    The OED treats them differently, citing the etymology of the -s as including an advert-forming suffix, while the -s in the -wards words is said to go back before English. Even so have the two ±s converged in some way?

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  33. Thank you for the Joe Evans reference, David - it is what I was thinking of (somewheres, anywheres), and also, I now realise, "anyways". I was interested to be linked to this on Facebook today, particularly no 9 ("Head towards the door and you'll see me") which is perfectly correct in BrE, but apparently quite wrong in USE.

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  34. It's perfectly fine in AmE too, just tends to be edited out by copy-editors. That writer is a bit too much like my 20-something uppity self.

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  35. Mrs Redboots

    and also, I now realise, "anyways"

    And leastways.

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  36. Hmm - I (US Northeast) would say "backward glance" but walking backwards." (adj/adv) Also, "toward the light" but "towards a reconciliation" (physical/metaphysical?)

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  37. It seems that -wards can be more informal than -ward — particularly with US copy editors. The OED gives evidence that -wards is generally more playful, yielding some more entertaining nonce-words than -ward:

    -WARD
    Godward, Paris-ward, Westonward, Magazine-ward, Putney-ward, youward, eastward and past-ward, Simla-ward

    -WARDS
    God-wards Heaven-wards and Holiness-wards, people wards, you-wards, perfectionwards, ceiling wards, Parliamentwards, breech-wards, truthwards,
    Russiawards the new line may be fire-fringed and fatal. Afghanwards it is no such thing,
    Aunt Eliza's fowls—already strolling roostwards.
    He was growing downwards, brutewards.

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  38. Something that seems to be missed, is that backward and backwards have two completely distinct meanings to my ears.

    Backwards is the direction opposite to forwards.
    Backward is a slightly insulting adjective meaning undeveloped or mentally challenged.

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  39. Dave Bush

    Backward is a slightly insulting adjective meaning undeveloped or mentally challenged.

    Yes, but for most of us that's by no means the only meaning.

    Backwards is the direction opposite to forwards.

    Yes, but for many if not most of us, backward is the direction opposite to forward.

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  40. Interestingly I (BrE) just found myself typing a message (semi-formal, attempting to persuade) with "moving toward [something]". I then decided to change "moving" to "moving further" and found myself automatically adding an s to "toward". It was only after I made the change that I remembered this discussion.

    I feel that with or without the s is "correct" in both cases but my personal preference is definitely to use without the s in the first and with the s in the second. I wonder if the difference is nothing to do with meaning but more to do with the way it would sound if spoken (the context was close to public speaking, in my mind)?

    I have noticed in the past that my style is noticeably different when public speaking than in other formal contexts. I also sometimes suffer from a slight stammer but it is very consistently less (fortunately) when public speaking. So context definitely changes the may my speech works.

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  41. The Linguistic Atlas of England (1978) shows that far less of the country prefers forwards over forward than prefers backwards over backward. So whatever the explanation is, it goes back a way(s). I doubt if there are any divergences among the compass-points (e.g. "northwards" but "southward")?

    "afterward(s)" might be a purer adverb test as it's never an adjective.

    I think I would favour "backwards" for the literal direction adjective to distinguish it from metaphorical backward = primitive, underdeveloped. (Though "a backwards glance" may be metaphorical, it's the whole glance that's such, not specifically the direction.)

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  42. Mollymoolly

    "afterward(s)" might be a purer adverb test as it's never an adjective.

    The OED lists an obsolete use 'final, last mentioned', and a nautical use related to aft. We can disregard these two, but they also give 'existing or occurring at a later date' with a spread of quotes from 1848 to 2009.

    The afterward quote is from the Korean Times, but the one before sounds plausible, if unusual:

    Without a robe..he could not wait out a storm or the afterward time until the snow gave up the hidden trail.

    Writers seem to have found it a handy way to avoid Latinate subsequent without using the rather bland later.

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  43. Another ±s pair

    for X's sake(s).

    I've just caught a snatch of Frazier, a show I'm only vaguely familiar with. A character said for God's sakes which sounded decidedly odd, since she's supposed to be a British character who retains much of her Northern English accent while living in America.

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  44. @anonymous

    I (AmE recreational sailor) pronounce leeward loo-werd or lew-erd, but probably not loo-erd

    What's the difference between lew-erd and loo-erd?

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  45. I've just caught a snatch of Frazier, a show I'm only vaguely familiar with. A character said for God's sakes which sounded decidedly odd, since she's supposed to be a British character who retains much of her Northern English accent while living in America.

    David: The character you're referencing from the show Frasier is Jane Leeves, and I was amused to read your comment because I recall witnessing an argument about whether Leeves was indeed English -- I believe someone told me he'd seen her do a stand-up comedy act with an American accent. In any case IMDB.com says she was born in Ilford, Essex, England, UK (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005137/?ref_=tt_cl_t2), and if "for God's sakes" sounds inauthentic to you I'd guess it's because the show's American writers failed to make what for her character would be a meaningful distinction. From my standpoint as an American I would say "For God's sakes!" as a standalone expression of aggrieved exasperation (of which there are plenty on the show Frasier) and "For God's sake" as a prelude to additional speech, such as "Oh for God's sake, would you stop badgering me?" On the other hand it's entirely possible I'm inventing this distinction and fail to honor it in my own speech.

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  46. @ek: Americans don't have a difference between 'loo-werd and lew-werd'. But to the Southeastern English the 'ew' spelling would signal that you're supposed to pronounce it basically as 'yew'. Here's an old post on the matter:
    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2006/11/missing-js.html

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  47. Dick Hartzell

    From my standpoint as an American I would say "For God's sakes!" as a standalone expression of aggrieved exasperation ... and "For God's sake" as a prelude to additional speech, such as "Oh for God's sake, would you stop badgering me?"

    Interestingly, it was neither of these. The character was pregnant and the joke lay in the words she used to refer to this. The phrase in question was a framing device, but far from being a prelude it followed the wisecrack. I forget the details but it was approximately:

    while I'm [PREGNANCY JOKE] for God's sakes!

    In my speech and, I think, in British speech generally it can only be for God's sake!.

    In both varieties, the phrase is a tag with no independent intonation. In words which she might have used

    to be a ↗WALKing ↘INcubator for God's sake(s)

    I wouldn't be in a hurry to criticise the writers. Although her basic accent is recognisably attached to a particular English region, the actress does make it sound as if it's been modified by living in the US.

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  48. Interestingly, it was neither of these. The character was pregnant and the joke lay in the words she used to refer to this. The phrase in question was a framing device, but far from being a prelude it followed the wisecrack.

    David: thanks for clarifying. To be honest in all my 57 years I've never given a moment's thought to the possibility that I might use both "for God's sake" and "for God's sakes" and that the context would be crucial to my choosing one over the other. So once again I've come away from a visit to separated by a common language with unexpected and slightly jarring insights into my own linguistic ignorance.

    Still, I find it interesting and significant that Leeves's line ended with "for God's sakes", because in the unlikely event the writers had decided to start with this oath -- and they wouldn't, because that reading wouldn't be funny -- Leeves would have said, "For God's sake, I'm [PREGNANCY JOKE]."

    Essentially the superfluous "s" serves to tone down the severity of the oath and cues the speaker as expressing near-mock frustration.

    Which I suppose is a longwinded way of saying it's very informal usage -- more informal than "For God's sake". Oddly, now that I think about it the same is true of "For Christ's sake". Were I writing pulp fiction I'd likely pursue shorthand character authenticity by having someone say, e.g., "For chrissakes, don't do that!"

    Anyway, you make a good point about Leeves's character using the American version of "For God's sake" simply because she's supposedly lived in the U.S. for quite a while -- in fact, according to IMDB the show ran from 1993 to 2004 and I think Leeves was in every season.

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  49. @Lynneguist. Notice that the person who made the comment distinguishing lew-erd and loo-erd indicated he speaks American English. Had it been a British person, I perhaps would have figured out just what you indicate. But it wasn't.

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  50. That's exactly why I was explaining it, because I thought it was an American who wouldn't know about the British u/ju alternation.

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  51. That doesn't even make sense. You made a comment to ME in reply my comments responding to an anonymous American poster who indicated lew and loo for different pronunciations (one he/she uses, one he/she probably doesn't). Differences in SE England aren't particularly relevant to my question to the anonymous American (or AmE speaker at least). And if it's relevant to that person, no reason to say it to me.

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  52. Sorry, I have misunderstood something here. No harm done, I hope.

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  53. That irritating vogue-phrase 'going forward' (why not use 'in [the] future'?)is always thus.

    In general (BrE) I find that the form without the s seems more poetic - 'Toward the unknown region' for example

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  54. Gabe Doyle has done a whole series on this phenomenon. Motivated Grammar: S-Series

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  55. Oxford Dictionaries now offer a terrific online resource for writers, learners and self-improvers. If you have access to the online OED, then you should be able to get Oxford Dictionaries Pro.

    For present purposes, what it offers from the Oxford Dictionaries database is:

    • 3534 Example sentences for toward
    • 6291 Example sentences for towards

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  56. I've done some more playing around with Oxford Dictionaries Pro. It's actually even more useful than I thought for us followers of Lynne.

    • From the Home page you can choose between the US English version and the World English version.

    • Having acquired certain types of lists ...

    [I haven't yet nailed down exactly which types and how to acquire them]

    ... you can filter them to identify the regional varieties which are recorded in the Dictionary as using them. The available varieties are:

    Australian
    British
    Canadian
    Indian English
    Irish English
    North American
    Northern English
    New Zealand
    Scottish
    South African
    US

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  57. 721OK, I've discovered how to use Oxford Dictionaries Pro for regional variety information.

    1. Click on Advanced search Dictionary/Thesaurus tab.

    2. Type in the word or phrase in the first box.

    3. In the third box, select Full text from the click-on menu.

    4. Either

    4a1 Click Search.
    4a2 On the next page, click one of the Refine by menus and select a filter.

    or

    4b1 Menu-slick and select or check a box for search criteria, as appropriate.
    4b2 Click Search.

    I think 4a works better than 4b, because the Refine by menus don't offer choices for which there is no data.

    It's by no means perfect. Many of the results are not the text you want but a link to where you can find it. And some of the results I've got are mysteriously irrelevant. I suspect this is a result of debugging of this new and complex site.

    An example

    Towards selected for the Region US yields 8 instances. Five are actually from definitions — I would guess definitions from an Oxford Dictionary of American English. The remaining pair are from database examples:

    favourable
    (of a wind) blowing in the direction of travel: by sailing towards the land first you will find more favourable wind

    By contrast, towards selected for the British US yields 18 instances. Again, most are in definitions. Two with towards in the data text are:

    brickwork
    (brickworks) [treated as singular] British a factory where bricks are made: we head over towards the old brickworks

    nose to tail
    British (of vehicles) moving or standing close behind one another, especially in heavy traffic: the traffic grinds nose to tail along the road towards Windermere

    I hope there's a way of searching that isn't mediated by dictionary meaning entries. I haven't yet found one. So the resource may be of limited use for quantitative data — but it promises great things for qualitative data.

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  58. I think it's a matter of register for me (AmE, California). The s ending spills out of my mouth naturally, part of my native dialect. I don't think I use it in writing. Another example of this is "ways," as in "go a ways down the road..."

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  59. I'm probably one of those editors who drives up the numbers by adding "s" for the UK authors and deleting them for the US authors. :) But I hate the use of both in one document/book! :)

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  60. I'm probably one of those editors who drives up the counts by adding "s" to the UK authors and deleting it in the US manuscripts. The worst, though, is when both forms are used in the same MS! :)

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  61. "Afterwards" is something of a shibboleth in Norfolk (not sure about Suffolk), and is pronounced /ˈɑːftəwɔːdz/, not with a schwa in the third syllable as in RP.

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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)