It's one of my favorite rules in the Monitor stylebook: All the "wards" words (well, almost all – more on that in a moment) lose their "s." It's "toward," "backward," "forward," and so on, not towards, backwards, or forwards. Unlike some other style rules, it's simple and straightforward. What's not to like?
But Erin Brenner, writing on the blog at Copyediting.com, makes me realize that not every publication supports its editors with such direct guidance on this issue. And a little poking around the Web confirms that many people trying to do right by the English language wonder about "toward vs. towards."
Here's what Ms. Brenner wrote:
"These days, American English has largely dispensed with the final s, although British English retains it. We'll choose upward, downward, afterward, toward, and the like, while the Brits will use upwards, downwards, afterwards, towards, and so on.
"Although American English prefers its directional words sans s, the s form is used to a lesser degree, and most dictionaries list them as variants."
She concludes that either set of forms is fine, as long as usage is consistent throughout a given piece of writing: "Save the red ink for more important battles."
She does make an exception for backwards, however: "In American English, we use backward for the adjectival form, but we use either backward or backwards equally for the adverbial form. Chalk it up to the vagaries of language users."
One can use up quite a bit of chalk that way. The Monitor's quirky exception to its own rule on "wards" words is "upwards of," as in "Upwards of 500 people crowded the City Council chamber last night to protest budget cuts." The reasoning is that "upwards of" is idiomatic. Period. Please pass the chalk.
Someone, evidently an American, responding to Brenner's post observed that he has always used the "s" forms of these "directional words" and was surprised when his grammar checker marked these as British usage. "To a large extent, it's not American English that has dispensed with the final s, but American editors."
I'm not sure I would have guessed that towards was a particularly British usage. The best-known example of "towards" that comes to thought as I sit here is Joan Didion's essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and she was born in California, for heaven's sake. Her title, however, alludes to a poem by the great Anglo-Irish poet W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming," and he used the "s" form, so maybe she didn't have a choice.
Still, towards isn't as unmistakably British as, for instance, whilst is. One blogger who weighed in on this topic noted that American forms tend to be shorter and "leaner" than the "more decorative British version." Yes, simplified spelling was one of the things Noah Webster was after when he wrote his American dictionary.
But what's up with the "st" of whilst? The Online Etymology Dictionary calls the "t" an "excrescent," which sounds dreadful, but just means it was tacked on later – like the "t" some Americans add to "across." While began as an Old English noun meaning "a space of time" – a usage that lives on when we say, "Let's sit here for a while and talk."
By the late 1300s, while had been repurposed as an adverb and then a conjunction. The "s" of whilst, like that of the "wards" words, was part of a long-vanished grammatical form: the adverbial genitive. Other words followed this pattern: amidst and amongst, along with alongst, which is no more, on either side of the Atlantic.