Toward vs. Towards: How to Choose the Right Word

Fortunately, the meaning's the same

Wooden footpath directional sign showing carving of walking person
Tim Graham / Getty Images

Is that car hurtling "toward" you or "towards" you? Are you looking "toward" or "towards" a fulfilling retirement? Although the meaning of "toward" and "towards" is contextually the same (much like "gray" and "grey"), where and how they are used can make a difference.

How to Use "Toward"

Typically used to mean “in the direction of,” "toward" and "towards" are equally acceptable spellings, and as prepositions, they are commonly used interchangeably.

That said, it should be noted that the rules of formal English writing do not always apply in informal settings. For example, American writers and speakers, when intentionally attempting to write or speak in a more colloquial or “down-home” style, sometimes use "towards" rather than "toward." In such cases, the use of "towards" in North American English is completely acceptable.

A study of American books, magazines, and newspapers published from 1800 to 2000 shows that the transition from the formerly British-favored "towards" to the now North American–favored "toward" began around 1900.

Other usages include meaning "in relation to," such as when talking about your feelings toward something or "for a purpose of," such as when you're working toward something.

How to Use "Towards"

"Towards" is preferred by English speakers outside of North America. Coming from the Old English word tóweard, also generally meaning “in the direction of,” "toward" is actually the older spelling, originating during the fifth century. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his classic ​"The Canterbury Tales" in Middle English between 1387 and 1400 in a time before English language spelling had become standardized. Despite writing a purely British text, Chaucer uses "toward"—the modern accepted North American English spelling—throughout "The Canterbury Tales."

"Towards" rose in popularity, eventually becoming the dominant spelling, during the 17th century and remained the most common spelling among all English speakers until American English speakers turned to "toward" during the 19th century.

By a ratio of about 10-to-1, newspapers and magazines in the United Kingdom and Australia favor the use "towards" rather than "toward."

Examples

No matter the spelling, the word is always a preposition, so there will always be an object following it. Here are a few examples, showing different types of usage:

  • The cat sneaked toward the bird. (movement in a direction; the object is the bird)
  • Our concert tickets are toward the stage at the front of the venue. (location; the object is the stage)
  • Unfortunately, her feelings toward him had changed. (in relation to; the object is him)
  • I put some money in the fund, which is going toward a house down payment. (for the purpose of; the object is the house down payment)

If you were writing these sentences for a U.K. audience, you could write them the same way, just add the "s" to the end of "toward."

In most cases, toward or towards is used to indicate either a direction of movement or the reason for taking a course of action.

Toward or Towards to Show Position

These sentences use toward and towards to indicate proximity to a time or place:

  • I always seem to get tired toward the middle of the afternoon.
  • I moved towards the room’s south-facing windows where the light was better.

Toward or Towards to Show Reason

These sentences use toward and towards to indicate the reason for achieving something:

  • Each of these exams will count toward your semester grade.
  • The completion of each of these objective counts towards achieving our final goal.

How to Remember the Difference

Because the words mean the same thing, there's no difference to remember except that you'll use "toward" when writing for an American audience and "towards" when writing for the British—and even if you make a mistake, the meaning of the sentence will not be affected.

The "-Ward" and "-Wards" Suffixes

"Toward" and "towards" are far from the only similarly spelled “directional” words. Over the centuries, the suffixes "-ward" and "-wards" have given rise to several similar words. Today, the same general rule of interchangeability that applies to "toward" and "towards" applies to word pairs such as "forward" and "forwards," "backward" and "backwards," "upward" and "upwards," "downward" and "downwards," and "afterward" and "afterwards."

Sources

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Longley, Robert. "Toward vs. Towards: How to Choose the Right Word." ThoughtCo, Nov. 3, 2020, thoughtco.com/toward-vs-towards-4154727. Longley, Robert. (2020, November 3). Toward vs. Towards: How to Choose the Right Word. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/toward-vs-towards-4154727 Longley, Robert. "Toward vs. Towards: How to Choose the Right Word." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/toward-vs-towards-4154727 (accessed July 31, 2021).