Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Backward View

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about Elmer the Backward Cow -- the titular bovine in the bedtime stories my dad used to tell us when we were kids. Well, after my dad read that post, he emailed me to let me know that the correct title was Elmer the Backwards Cow.

He then described the difference between "backward" and "backwards," which I will present to you verbatim: "Backward implies a mental deficiency of some sort, whereas Elmer was merely set in reverse."

Well, he's a Professor Emeritus of American Literature, and people like that usually know a thing or two about words, but I don't know if what he says is true. So I wrote back and told him that I didn't think "backwards" was even a real word, just like "towards" and "forwards."

However, if what he says is true, then I believe it's by convention and not by definition. And even though I couldn't find any independent confirmation of his assertion in the dictionary, from time to time I've used "backward" to denote a mental deficiency of some sort. For example, when I was a freshman in college, I remember telling someone, "She's sort of forward, but I'm sort of backward, so it all works out." (It didn't.)

Anyway, like so many other people, I used to think "backwards" was a real word, until sometime in the late '70s when I used it in a document I was writing for work. The editor didn't like it, though. She may have even made a note like "not a real word" or something. Somewhat confused, I went right to the dictionary, and sure enough, "backwards" was nowhere to be found. So I corrected the manuscript and stopped using the word.

But before you rush off to your dictionaries in shock and disbelief, I'll tell you in advance that you're likely to find the word in just about any dictionary you look in, whether "backwards" is a real word or not. That, of course, is because dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive, i.e., they describe how people talk, they don't prescribe how people should talk. That makes sense, since languages are always changing, and the most common way for those changes to occur is through the widespread adoption of mistakes. So it's misguided to think of a dictionary as the ultimate authority on what's right and what's wrong, since right and wrong are ultimately determined by popularity and not so much by rules of grammar, pronunciation, semantics, spelling, or whatever. It's sort of like living in a democracy: If enough people say it, it must be right, despite the best intentions of linguistic purists like me.

(As for why the particular dictionary I looked in didn't have an entry for "backwards," I can offer no explanation, other than that it was an abridged dictionary, so there were a lot of other words missing from it as well.)

In any case, I thought it might be a good idea to look online and see what I could dig up.

According to The American Heritage® Book of English Usage: "You can spell the adverb backward or backwards. The forms are interchangeable: stepped backward, a mirror facing backwards. But in Standard English the adjective has no -s: a backward view."

Okay. Since we're using it as an adjective in Elmer the cow's case, Standard English would dictate that we use "backward" instead of "backwards."

But that isn't the end of the story. AskOxford.com begins its answer to the question Is it acceptable to use 'backwards' instead of 'backward'? as follows: "This is a point on which British and US usage differs."

In other words, no matter what else they tell us, they won't be able to give us a definitive answer. They go on to cite two usage guides, but I'm not going to quote them here -- you can follow the link if you want. However, they do mention that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "backwards" has been in use in English since the 16th century. So it seems like that editor back in the '70s could have cut me a little slack.

So I guess it's okay to say "backwards." I prefer the word "backward" but to be honest, I still use "backwards" from time to time. Sometimes it just sounds better. For example, Elmer the Backwards Cow sounds better than Elmer the Backward Cow, so that's probably what I should have written in my earlier post. I'm still never going to use "forwards" and "towards," though. There's just no reason to. And I probably won't ever use "afterwards" either.