Are Toward and Towards Different?

Wooden footpath directional sign showing carving of walking person
Walking Toward Home. Tim Graham / Getty Images

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

As typically used to mean “in the direction of,” toward and towards are equally acceptable spellings. According to the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook, toward is preferred when writing for American and Canadian English speakers, while towards — with the ending “s” — is preferred by English speaking persons outside of North America. However, both manuals note that these are merely recommendations, not hard-and-fast rules, and exceptions are common.

While the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that towards is a more colloquial or informal usage in British English, most grammarians say there is little evidence that this is true in modern British writing.

However, 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.

Usage of Toward and Towards

As a preposition, toward and towards are commonly used interchangeably in these cases:

  • In the direction of something or somebody — “The train was headed toward the French border.” — “Her back was toward me.”
  • Getting closer to achieving something — “The research is a major step toward a cure.”
  • Getting closer to a point in time — “Storm clouds usually gather toward sundown.”
  • In relation to somebody — “She held warm feelings toward her old school.” — “The poem expressed his attitude toward war.”
  • Obtaining things of material value — “Your donation will go toward a new library.”

History of Toward and Towards

Coming from the Old English word tóweard, also generally meaning “in the direction of,” toward is the older spelling, originating during the 5th century. Towards rose in popularity, eventually becoming the dominant spelling during the 17th century. However, there have been some exceptions to this history. For example, 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 remained the most common spelling among all English speakers until American English speakers turned to toward during the 19th century.

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

Similar studies of British books and periodicals published during the same period show that while towards remains heavily favored today, the use of toward seems to be on the rise.

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.

Examples of Toward and Towards in Publications

By a ratio of about 10 to 1, newspapers and magazines in the United Kingdom and Australia favor the use towards rather than toward. For example, quotations from these news sources demonstrate their predominant usage of towards:

The Daily Mail: “Libyan rebels advanced west towards Tripoli today after seeing off yet more airstrikes on captured cities by an increasingly desperate Colonel Gaddafi.”

The Guardian: “A few months later, towards December, they circle back completing a round trip of several hundred kilometres.”

Australian Associated Press: “Scientists are moving towards the conclusion that the eastern cougar was erroneously classified as a separate subspecies in the first place.”

Edinburgh Evening News: “Police began a surveillance operation and on December 23 last year saw David Smith leave his home and head towards a car.”

American and Canadian publications, on the other hand, show a similar ratio of preference for toward:

The New York Times: “Scientists are moving toward the conclusion that the eastern cougar was erroneously classified as a separate subspecies in the first place.”

The Globe and Mail (Canada): “To be sure, China is already seeing a shift away from exports toward domestic purchases as its sales to places like Europe falter.”

USA Today: “One inning Tuesday went a long way toward erasing any questions the Minnesota Twins might have about their closer.”