Toward (Towards?) a Better Tomorrow

Big changes lie ahead for me personally and professionally. I’ve made some life-altering decisions, and I feel good about those decisions. There’s uncertainty, sure, but I feel good about that too.

I’ve lost a lot in life. My mother and sister died when I was 17. Not long thereafter I spent a summer watching my grandmother die of lung cancer. I’ve lost too many friends too soon. In many ways I lost my father, who died just before the new year, long ago.

But I’ve also been given a lot in life. Two wonderful children. Friends who mean everything to me. A partner who is as beautiful as she is supportive.

We can’t change anything that’s come before. We make decisions and move forward.

And we hope we make decisions for the right reasons.

In Puerto Rico, contemplating the future (7/26/17)

As an editor, I make any number of decisions every day. These decisions often come down to whether I should change something or let it stand. Compared to major life decisions, some of these decisions might seem minor, but I’m not sure anything ever is, and our underlying approach to decision-making is consistent, no matter the scale.

Over the past week, I’ve followed discussions about the spelling of toward and of how U.S. editors spend a lot of time changing towards to toward, the thought being that toward is more common in American English.

Changing towards is almost a reflex.

I must have first come across this guidance at least two decades ago, and I’ve changed towards to toward more times than I can count.

There’s support for doing so.

In Garner’s Modern English Usage, Brian A. Garner writes that toward “has been the predominant and editorially preferred form” in American English since about 1900.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage puts toward as “at least twice as frequent” in American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster online list toward as the primary spelling, with towards as the variant.

The eleventh edition of The Gregg Reference Manual specifies that “both forms are correct, but toward is more common in U.S. usage.”

I’m as rebellious as the next guy, and I don’t believe you always have to bow to the “authorities,” but I have a great deal of respect for each of the above-mentioned resources, and I’m going to take their guidance into serious consideration. Others do as well, so I know I’m making decisions based on reference points that other editors also hold in high esteem.

If a client has a preference for towards, that’s the client’s choice, but unless otherwise specified, I’ll make the change. It seems like a clear-cut decision.

But nothing in life ever is.


As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this is apparently my Year of the Big Decision (more on the nature of these decisions in a future post). So maybe I’m especially prone to contemplation about choices in every aspect of my life.

Whatever the case, it bothers me that I’ve always so readily accepted “more common in American English” as a reason to kill towards without giving it more thought.

Linguist, editor, writer, and book designer Jonathon Owen (of Arrant Pedantry) contended in a piece for the Visual Thesaurus that authors use toward and towards in “roughly equal numbers,” and that it’s the copy editors, rather than the authors, who enforce the distinction.  

“In a nutshell, towards is seemingly rare in American English because copy editors make it rare,” wrote Owen.

If this is the case, then that’s a bit of an eye-opener, and it’s certainly something to consider when pondering language change. I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that copy editors enforce and thereby drive certain usages, but I always imagined that these decisions ultimately reflected actual word use among authors and that the copyediting, in a sense, followed.

Maybe that was a tad naive. 

Copy editors, like authors, should have the needs of the audience in mind, but how does the conception of audience for a copy editor differ from that of the writer? And if copy editors and writers vary in background, interests, and worldview, then who should shoulder the greater weight for shaping language?

Toward/towards also came up in a recent discussion thread, with one editor maintaining that she left towards whenever possible because she didn’t want to contribute to the corpus supporting this “preference” among American authors.

Corpora like the Google Ngram Viewer have made this kind of information more and more accessible, and this ready access will undoubtedly also shape language change, as well as our awareness of our own roles in that change.

Authors, editors, readers: we’re all connected, perhaps affecting each other in ways we didn’t previously understand (or fully understand, at any rate).

As an editor, this knowledge makes me want to always question the edits I make, to place these edits in context, and to move forward and make better, more informed decisions.

Why Are We Often So Eager to Follow a “Rule”?

I always try to embrace the philosophy that in editing there are no rules, only guidelines. But I also have to admit that there’s a part of all of us inclined toward following rules and experiencing the pleasure (misguided or not) of applying them.

I don’t think editors can separate their approach to work from their approach to life (and their approach toward others). An editor who edits to help his client and ultimately the reader likely takes a much different approach to life than the one whose chief joy is “correcting” the author. As an editor, I hope I’m the former.

In this Year of the Big Decision, in this year of exploring my decision-making, I’ll suggest a few reasons why we as editors might so readily embrace “rules” such as automatically changing towards to toward.   

  1. Consistency. When there are multiple spellings of a word in a document, it can confuse or slow the reader unnecessarily. Consistency is usually a good thing. Some argue that context changes whether toward or towards sounds better in a particular sentence. While I’m open to this idea, I still believe the distraction of flip-flopping spellings might outweigh any benefits from the sound of the word in each sentence.  
  2. Being right. We want to be right, damn it! People love to point out other people’s “mistakes,” and there might be no place this happens more often than in the realm of language. I hope I resist this urge more often than not. Helping, not correcting, is the nobler approach.
  3. Blindly following. At some level, most of us appreciate guidelines. If we’re provided one, we may grasp on to it and apply it blindly, perhaps even wielding it for years without giving it a second thought. The Year of the Big Decision might be the perfect time to take inventory of all those decisions I make without thinking. Whether or not I change those decisions, I would undoubtedly benefit from considering them in more depth.
  4. Showing our work. We all want to show our clients that we are dedicated, thorough editors, and the low-hanging fruit of instances like towards is one quick, easy way to do that. Authors may even switch back and forth between spellings without being aware of it, and they may thank you for pointing this out, even if they choose something other than what you’ve recommended.
  5. Adhering to author’s/client’s/audience’s preference. In the end, it’s the client’s work. We suggest what we feel is the best choice, but ultimately the client has the final say.

Toward (and Towards) the Future

Copy editors have feelings about their work. Feelings and theories and attitudes and passion.

We learn as much as possible, fight off petty motivations, and make the best decisions we can. Then we reevaluate those decisions and move forward.

Always forward.

Life can be cut short at any moment. My sister wanted to be a translator, but she never had the chance. We might even have worked together. I like to think that we would have, but maybe in some ways we still do.

I think of the years she lost and the years I’ve been granted and I keep her in mind. And when I make decisions, big and small, in editing and in life, I want those decisions to help the reader, to help the author, to help the people I care about, and even to help myself.

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