People use some words differently in various situations or depending on where they are from. These variations in usage and the words themselves can confuse learners of any language. For example, is it correct to say “backwards,” or should we use “backward”?
Both “backward” and “backwards” are correct and largely interchangeable. We use “backward” as an adjective regardless of region, and this is also the typical adverbial form in American English. Conversely, “backwards” is the preferred adverb in British English.
Let us look at both variations of this word and understand what they mean and how and when to use either one. We will also explore the differences between American and British English usages. In addition, we will also have a brief look at adverbs.
What Does “Backwards” Mean?
“Backwards” is an adverb, and it means moving or looking towards the back, the opposite direction, the past, or a worse state than currently. Note that “backwards” is the typical usage for the adverbial form in British English, while “backward” is the adverbial form for American English.
Note that we do not use “backwards” as an adjective; it is always “backward” when we need the adjectival form. In this form, it could have one of many meanings. For example, it can indicate either something turned toward the back or someone shy; it can also suggest an unintelligent or not advanced person, place, or thing (source).
Collins Dictionary notes that American English speakers usually use “backward” as an adverb instead of “backwards” and that British English speakers and writers also sometimes use “backward” formally in the adverbial form.
Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “Backwards”?
Both “backwards” and “backward” are grammatically correct options to use. However, we must keep in mind that “backwards” is the typical, more acceptable adverbial form in British English, while American English uses “backward.”
However, speakers across both sides of the Atlantic use “backward” as the adjectival form.
So it is correct to say, “Reading this sentence backward can be tough” in the US. It is also suitable to say, “Singing the alphabet song backwards can be fun though challenging” in the UK.
Similarly, it is totally alright to say, “Kate might be old, but she is definitely not backward technologically. In fact, she has a massive social media following.”
How and When to Use “Backwards”
Given that both “backwards” and “backward” are largely acceptable and interchangeable, we need to ensure we understand how and when to use each option, as well as when not to use either one.
How Do You Use “Backwards”?
“Backwards” is a directional adverb — that is, it indicates the direction of action and modifies a verb. Still, note that we only use “backwards” as an adverb and, typically, only in British English.
However, in American English, it is typically “backward,” whether we use the word as an adjective or an adverb. So the best advice is to use “backwards” when you have a British audience and want to use the word as an adverb. As we noted earlier, use “backward” for the adjective across both sides of the Atlantic.
Let us look at some examples of “backwards” and “backward” to understand these differences better.
Using “backwards” or “backward” is simple as an adverb. It is, again, a directional adverb and indicates the direction of the verb.
- Julie loves moonwalking backwards.
- Johnny is great at somersaulting backwards.
- She traced her steps backwards in an effort to find her keys.
- Some days are so slow that it can feel like time is moving backwards.
When we use the form without the “s,” as in “backward,” it is an adjective in both American and British English. The exception is its adverbial use in America.
We can use “backward” as an adjective to mean a few different things. Let us understand each usage better with definitions and example sentences.
“Backward” can mean directed or turned towards the back. As in:
- Alice did not spare him even one backward glance.
Here, the word “backward” is an adjective modifying the noun “glance.”
“Backward” can also mean to represent something done “backward.” As you can see in the sentence below, “backward” modifies the noun “somersault.”
Notice that the adjective “backward” precedes the noun form for “somersault” to modify it, whereas, in the example in the previous section, the adverb “backward” followed the verb form “somersaulting.”
- His triple backward somersault was amazing.
Another meaning for “backward” as an adjective is to describe an unadvanced thing, person, or place or describe someone as unintelligent.
- He grew up in a backward village with no access to electricity or running water.
In the example above, we are using “backward” to talk about a “backward place,” as in lacking modern amenities.
Another example of this meaning of “backward” is in the sentence below, where we describe someone with an antiquated way of thinking.
- He still has a backward way of thinking about the internet.
Using “Backwards” in a Full Sentence
When we use “backward(s)” in a sentence, placement depends on whether we use it as an adverb or an adjective.
We place the adverb “backwards” or “backward” after a sentence’s object or main verb, like other adverbs of place. You can read more about adverbs later in the article. When we use “backward” as an adjective, we normally place it before the noun it modifies.
The examples below will help show the difference.
As an adverb: (“backward” and “backwards”).
- Janet practiced her part until she knew it backward and forward.
- The ball rolled backwards down the steep slope.
In the first sentence, “backward” follows the object “it,” which refers to Janet’s part in a play, while in the second sentence, “backwards” is after the verb “rolled.”
As an adjective: (“backward”)
- The little girl gave her mom one last backward glance as she went onto the stage.
- There is no running water or electricity in this backward corner of the county.
Note that in both sentences above, the adjective “backward” is before the noun it modifies in each sentence (“glance” and “corner”).
As an adjective and an adverb:
- People call him backward Bill because he is always wearing his shirt backward.
The first “backward” is an adjective that describes Bill himself, while the second “backward” is an adverb that indicates how Bill dresses. Again, if you use this sentence in the UK, spell the second instance with an “s,” as below:
- People call him backward Bill because he is always wearing his shirt backwards.
In What Context Can You Use “Backwards”?
Since “backwards” in British English is an adverb of place they might use to indicate direction, distance, or position, we should only use “backwards” in contexts relating to place (source).
Here is an interesting application for the adverb “backwards” that also teaches you something cool. Do you know what a “semordnilap” is?
A semordnilap is a word that makes a different word when we spell it backwards. This includes words like “pan” or “dessert.” Note that when we spell “semordnilap” backwards, we get “palindromes,” which are words (or even phrase/sentence) that read the same backwards and forwards, like madam! (source).
However, “backward” can be either an adverb or an adjective, depending on context, audience, and usage.
- Janet did not spare Jack even a backward glance as she walked away.
- Janet stepped backwards as she worked to regain her balance.
When Can You Use “Backwards”?
To put it simply, we can use the word “backwards” as an adverb in the UK and “backward” as an adjective. In the US, use “backward” whether you mean to use it as an adverb or an adjective, and you cannot go wrong!
However, remember that writing an academic paper is different from composing a private email to someone. Also, in the case of academic papers, usage and spelling will depend on which academic style guide you are using.
For example, when Merriam-Webster offers variants for spelling a word, The Chicago Manual of Style prefers the first-listed option in Merriam-Webster (source). In contrast, the APA Style Guide allows for either as long as the writer is consistent (source).
When Not to Use “Backwards”?
As we’ve mentioned already, “backwards” is not the preferred option for this word in either adverbial or adjectival forms in American English. Also, we do not use “backwards” as an adjective anywhere, whether in British or American English.
Check out our article “Analyzed or Analysed: What Is the Difference?” to read more about these interesting differences between American and British spellings.
What Can You Use Instead of “Backwards”?
As with any word, using “backwards” or “backward” in the wrong place or at the wrong time, or even overusing it, can make your speech or writing awkward. So it is always good to have a handy list of alternate options ready to use.
Here are a few words and phrases we can use instead of “backwards” or “backward.” Remember to keep the context in mind and use the substitute that sounds and fits best.
- in reverse
- towards the rear
As an adverb:
- She drove backwards. → She drove in reverse.
- He counted backwards from ten. -> He counted back from ten.
As an adjective:
- He has some backward views. → He has some old-fashioned views.
- Even one backward step can be costly. → Even one regressive step can be costly.
Adverbs of Degree, Manner, Frequency, Place, or Time
Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They indicate place, time, degree, manner, level of certainty, or frequency and help answer how, when, where, or to what extent something happens (source).
Adverbs of Place
Adverbs of place indicate where something happens, describing direction, distance, or an object’s position in relation to another object. We typically place them after the main verb or object, and they don’t modify adjectives or other adverbs.
Some examples include “everywhere,” “outside,” “nearby,” “below,” “around,” and our featured word “backward(s).”
- They looked everywhere for their dog.
Adverbs of Time, Manner, Frequency, and Degree
Adverbs of time help communicate when, or for how long, something happens. These include words like “early,” “yesterday,” and “now.” Words like “for” and “since” help connect adverbial phrases of time to denote how long.
- Abed went to the movies yesterday.
For more about another closely related and often confusing word, read our article “Which Is Correct: ‘Afterward’ or ‘Afterwards’?”
Adverbs of manner tell us how something happens, and we usually place them after the main verb or object. Many of these adverbs are a result of adding -ly to adjectives, like “happily,” “loudly,” “quickly,” “gently,” or “nicely.” However, there are exceptions, like “well,” “hard,” and “fast.”
- She danced gracefully!
Adverbs of frequency indicate how often something happens. Examples include “always,” “never,” “constantly,” “sometimes,” “weekly,” and “daily,” among many other similar words.
- John practices piano daily.
Adverbs of degree tell us about the intensity of something, and we usually place them before the word(s) they modify, with some exceptions. Some examples include “very,” “extremely,” “more,” “enough,” and “too.”
- Bungee jumping is an extremely thrilling sport.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
As we can see, adverbs help us give more meaning to sentences by defining the how, when, and where. They thus provide a way to quantify and intensify our statements.
You might feel like you are bending over backwards in an attempt to learn the myriad differences between American and British English in addition to the regular rules of language and grammar, but do not fret. Soon, you will be cruising forward at full speed.
Simply remember two things in the case of “backwards.” First, “backwards” is always an adverb, and second, this is the preferred form in British English.
So, in the case of “backward,” remember that you can use “backward” in American English regardless of whether you are using it as an adjective or a directional adverb. Also, “backward” is the adjectival form even in British English.