Writers: Should you go ‘towards’ the light?

We’re going to talk for a moment about the word “toward,” or is it “towards”?

dictionary bindingBut first, a quick and embarrassing personal story:

I used to think I was a pretty smart guy, and loved to toss around $2 words to demonstrate my incredible vocabulary and mastery of the English language. Notice that I used the past tense there. A day finally came when I got my vocabularistic* comeuppance**. (cue dreamy music…)

I was 31 years-old and working at a film-coating plant as the night shift superintendent. Keith, one of my machine operators, was a pretty smart guy, too. One night he said something irrelevant to me, so I replied to him: “Irregardless of that…”

I never finished that sentence. He stopped me with a snarky grin and asserted, “That’s not a real word.”

What’s not a real word?” I shot back.

“Irregardless, ” he smirked. “There’s no such word.”

“Sure there is. It means ‘without regard to that’ … um … er … regardless.” My voice trailed off.

Keith was right, of course. There ain’t no such word as “irregardless” — since the real word regardless serves quite nicely.

I’m not so quick to shoot off my mouth anymore, or to toss out expensive words just to impress people. As an editor, I’ve learned to question the words I hear other people use, and to be a better listener in general. I’ve also realized that spending time reading articles about common grammar mistakes helps make me a better writer and editor.

We all pick up words and phrases from sources around us — our parents, classmates and teachers, friends, radio broadcasts, and of course the television. Eventually we realize: Don’t believe everything you hear. How many kids are still trying to unlearn “nukuler”? (Talk about a source you should have been able to trust!)

So what about towards?

I mean, really — you hear people use it all the time. But toward means exactly the same thing. So why would one require more than one toward, thus enlisting the plural preposition towards? Is towards just another idiomatic expression? (sorry!)

Well, not exactly.

I asked Dictionary.com for advice on this matter. Turns out, towards is an also of toward. The site was even kind enough to furnish some nifty sample sentences using the word towards. Either word works.

It’s a rare grammar question that can be answered “either way is correct.” While it appears that the singular toward may indeed be preferred, no disparaging declarations about the unsuitability of using towards were evident. Not only that, it’s okay.

So, if you want to go towards the light, that’s perfectly fine. Meanwhile, I’ll start working toward the exit. I think I see Keith coming up the walk. Gotta run!

*not a real word
**a real word that makes me laugh

»photo credit: crdotx

Have you ever suddenly discovered that you’d been using a word or phrase incorrectly for years? After that, did you go around enlightening others, as did my friend Keith? Please tell us about your experience.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Excellent article, Jim! I made the same mistake with ‘regardless’ for a long time, it seems it’s a very common error. I have always used ‘toward’ and ‘towards’ equally, but at times one ‘sounded better’ than the other for some reason. The only difference in our experiences is that I didn’t bother to look it up. See what happens?

    • Great point, Raymond!
      I’ll bet that I, too, have used toward or towards depending on how it “sounds” in a given instance. Language is fun, isn’t it?

  2. Iirregardless grates on me like nails on a chalkboard. UGH! I couldn’t for my life convince my “dear sweet” Mother-in-law that it was NOT a real word. Towards was my last oopie for me, and I only just learned it rather recently. Hey, I can be taught! Now for my M-I-L….not likely.

  3. Interestingly, that stellar resource, Dictionary.com, also lists the pronunciation of nuclear as *nukular* as okay. (It’s the same reason we all say “comfortable” wrong). So, I’m sorry to say, Jim, if you are going to accept their opinion on towards, then you gotta take nukular, too. 😉

  4. Jim, I needn’t comment as Gloria said exactly what I was going to say. It’s such a pet-peeve of mine (and I had a pet named Peeve, btw). Thus I must repeat it. Irregardless is not a word. You know that now and more power to you for this article, as I have always wondered if towards is also a word. I thank you for being so open as so much of us (coining a term here) wordies are…particular, that is says so much about your character that you didn’t gloss over it as you taught us all the proper usage of another word. I will go toward or towards your site as often as I can thanks too your honesty. Brilliant.

    • Jim Bessey says

      Thank you very much, Lee!
      When I began writing, I simply assumed that ‘towards’ was just plain wrong. And, maybe it is. Perhaps Dictionary.com–a site I’ve always trusted–lets “common usage” create inclusions for these peculiarities in our language.
      I’m not a huge Obama fan, but it sure is nice to have a President who knows how to pronounce a word like ‘nuclear’ correctly.
      Thanks again for your kind and encouraging words, Lee.

  5. The first time I ever read the word “irregardless” I shuddered big time. I kept trying to decide how “regardless” and “irregardless” were different. It’s not like relevant and irrelevant since they both have completely opposite meanings. Regardless/irregardless mean the same exact thing 😉

    • Jim Bessey says

      Hey, great to see you here, Doreen!
      I was thinking about you yesterday…hang on, brb … THERE! I hold in my hands a new-condition/factory sealed copy of “Englebert ~ Greatest Love Songs.” (wahoo!) Do I have your physical addy in my email somewhere?
      You also made me think of “inflammable” and “imflammable.” The second is not a word, but certainly sounds like one. Hear it that way often enough, or maybe it’s just my bad hearing. Funny that “enflame” and “aflame” are both words, as well.
      How goes it, Doreen? Are you crazy-busy these days? Miss your wit and wisdom, M’Lady!

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