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Which Is Correct: “Afterward” or “Afterwards”?

There are many words in English where we hear two similar versions and wonder which one to choose. Consider the case of “afterward” vs. “afterwards”? These adverbs are confusing because you may see both versions in use and wonder whether there’s a difference. 

British English favors “afterwards” more while“afterward” is more common in American English, especially academic writing. Thus, it is correct to say “afterward” or “afterwards” in their proper spheres. Both are adverbs synonymous with “at a later time,” and we would apply both in the same contexts. 

We will explore the -ward or -wards confusion and other contextual usage tips. Hopefully, you are more comfortable using these adverbs afterward (or afterwards). Though they have the same function and meaning, you may find that you prefer one over the other.

What Does “Afterward” or “Afterwards” Mean?

“Afterward” means after an event or later. The suffix -ward is a directional suffix meaning “in the direction of” (source). It has a second form with the same meaning: -wards. So, you can use “afterward” to refer to something that happened or will happen after a certain event.

The suffix -ward denotes a direction. We use -ward in many common words: “toward,” “forward,” “backward,” and “downward.” For example, you may turn your eyes heavenward in prayer or give your child straightforward instructions. All of these -ward words are directional in nature, but none of them have anything to do with time.

Interestingly, “afterward” is one of the few English -ward words that purely refer to a direction in time. “Toward,” “forward,” and “backward” can do so in addition to their physical meanings, but “afterward” is unique for its focus on time. For this reason, grammarians classify “afterward” as an adverb but never a preposition.

So, is there a difference in meaning between “afterward” and “afterwards”? Not at all! In fact, most -ward words may take either form without changing meaning. Perhaps context will determine a preference.

How Do You Use “Afterward” or “Afterwards”?

“Afterward” and “afterwards” are both adverbs of time. Therefore, you can use them to refer to something happening after an event just as you would use their synonyms “after” and “later.”

You can use either “afterward” or “afterwards” to describe a sequence of events: “We are wrapping up here and will get ice cream afterwards.” These adverbs are super helpful in communicating future plans, describing a series of events in the past, or what generally happens after a certain activity.

Grammatically, “afterward” and “afterwards” appear wherever an adverb of time may appear. Suppose you wish to place particular emphasis upon the timing of something, though. In that case, you should place either “afterward” or “afterwards” at the beginning of the sentence: “afterwards, they watched a movie.”

Image by Aron Visuals via Unsplash

When Can You Use “Afterward” or “Afterwards”?

“Afterward” is an adverb of time, and we can place it wherever we can place an adverb. “Afterward” may introduce the timing of something after an event from the very beginning of a sentence for emphasis on time: “afterward, there will be refreshments.”

It may also appear inside a verb phrase for emphasis: “he will afterward shower and load up.” Sometimes a speaker wishes to communicate a general statement. Placing “afterward” immediately before the main verb notes a general habit clearly: “Jane afterward relaxes on the sofa.”

Placing “afterward” at the end of the sentence does not mean the timing is unimportant, but it also does not emphasize the time. For example, “Ben will give her a gift afterward” emphasizes that Ben will give her a gift.

We could drop “afterward,” and the base message would remain intact; however, adding “afterward” specifies that the timing is soon after an event.

Interestingly, you can use “afterwards” in any way that you use “afterward.” Let’s break that down.

In What Context Can You Use “Afterward”?

You may use “afterward” to communicate a sequence of events in the past, present, or future. The timing of “afterward” tends to be immediately after an event, but it can refer to something that happens some time after the event. 

You can include “afterward” to describe when you permit the next activity or the consequence of a certain activity.

To Communicate a Sequence in the Past, Present, or Future

You can use “afterward” to show a sequence of events in the past. For example, in the following sentence, notice how both the dinner and the announcement are past events: “the participants cast their votes throughout the dinner, and the host announced the results afterward.”

Likewise, you can use “afterward” to describe future plans immediately after a future event: “We will go camping next weekend and visit family afterward.” Just remember to state the timing of the main event clearly.

“Afterward” may also communicate plans after an event happening now. For example, during a concert, your friends may say, “afterward, we are planning to get pizza. Do you want to come?” Invitations are a common way to use “afterward” during a current event.

As you can see, the timing of the main event — past, present, or future — does not matter as “afterward” will show that the next event happens “after” or “later than” the main event. This is especially important when using “afterward” in the following contexts.

To Communicate a Sequence With Large Gaps of Time

“Afterward” has a feeling of immediateness to it. When “zoomed in” on moments or specific events in time, it often communicates a sequence without much time in between events. 

However, “afterward” can also communicate a sequence of events throughout history. This “zoomed out” use of “afterward” implies that these events are related.

“The American Civil War had a terrible economic impact on the South. Afterward, Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts to mend its infrastructure.” “Afterward,” here, shows that Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts after the war, but the usage does not reflect how many years it took to pass them.

Quantifying gaps of time is possible while using “afterward.” You may say “long afterward” for large gaps in time or “shortly afterward” for “soon.”

To Give Permission for the Next Activity

You can use “afterward” to give permission for something after a certain task or event. For example, a mother can say, “clean your room now and play games afterward.” This use of “afterward” clarifies an expected sequence.

You may also use “afterward” to permit something after the completion of a task: “You may play games afterward.” Both the speaker and receiver understand the current task, so no one has to say it. In other words, they understand the situational context, and its completion allows the next activity.

To Describe the General Consequence that Follows

In situations where you wish to show the relationship of a general consequence with a certain event or task, you can employ “afterward.” For example, “I enjoy painting, but I must scrub my hands afterward” reflects that scrubbing hands is the consequence of painting.

In What Context Can You Use “Afterwards”?

There is a greater preference for “afterwards” in British English, while American English dictionaries list “afterward” first with “afterwards” as a less common variant. Still, you may use “afterwards” in all the same ways you would use “afterward” (source).

It can communicate the sequence of events in the past, present, or future. It can also show either immediate or gapped sequences. Finally, it can indicate the consequence of an action, and it can describe when someone grants permission. 

Scholars do not fully understand the slight preference for “afterwards” in British English. Perhaps adding the extra -s ending better suits the cadence of British accents, while the lack of one better suits American accents. 

This may be why American English prefers “afterward” to “afterwards” in academic writing, even though they are equivalent in meaning.

When Not to Use “Afterward” or “Afterwards”

You should not use “afterward” when you’ve already used an adverb of time to signal that something will happen “after” the event. For instance, saying, “Once you clean your room, we will go to the park afterward” is redundant. 

Only use “afterward” to signal a sequence of events if you have not already done so with another adverb or adverbial phrase.

In other words, if you have an adverb of time in your sentence already, do not use another one. For instance, in the sentence “next, we will visit Paris afterward,” the “afterward” is totally redundant. Therefore, you ought to either eliminate “next” or “afterward.”

What Can You Use Instead of “Afterward” or “Afterwards”?

Adverbs of time that are synonymous with “afterward” and “afterwards” include “after,” “later,” “once,” “subsequently,” “thereafter,” “then,” “eventually,” or “next” (source). Of all these adverbs of time, the preposition “after” and adverb “later” most closely align with the range of usage “afterward” wields (source).

Remember never to use multiple adverbs of time that mean “after” within the same sentence.

afterWe will go to the park after lunch.
laterWe will go to the park later.
afterwardWe will go to the park afterward.

Though “afterward” can claim “after” as a synonym, “afterward” cannot function as a preposition. Since “after” is usually a preposition, it can take an object and form a prepositional phrase: “after lunch.” Neither “afterward” nor “afterwards” can do this; they stand alone as adverbs describing “when” an activity happens.

Using “Afterward” or “Afterwards” in a Full Sentence

“Afterward” and its other form “afterwards” are adverbs of time. You may place them wherever you can place an adverb in a sentence: at the beginning of the sentence, immediately after a linking or auxiliary verb, immediately before the main verb, or at the end of the sentence. 

“Afterward” concisely describes a sequence of events. An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. It is by far the most flexible English part of speech in terms of placement. As an adverb of time, “afterward” is able to describe the timing of something after an event in four places:

The Beginning of a Sentence“Afterward, Timmy will buy a toy.”
After a Helping Verb“Tim is afterward buying a toy.”
Immediately Before the Main Verb“Tim afterward buys a toy.”
At the End of a Sentence“Timmy will buy a toy afterward.”

We may modify “afterward” with other adverbs to show how much time has or will transpire after the event. “Soon afterward,” “long afterward,” “shortly afterward,” and “not long afterward” are all common ways to quantify how long “afterward” means in the context. 

You will find a similar line of thinking in defining “tomorrow” in our article on “What Does ‘By Tomorrow’ Mean?

Notice, though, that placing “afterward” or “afterwards” before the main verb causes a sentence to sound like a general statement. The simple present verb tense works in general statements, and placing an adverb of time immediately before it has the same outcome.

Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “Afterwards” or “Afterward”?

It is grammatically correct to say either “afterward” or “afterwards,” though “afterward” is best in American English. Generally, you may use them interchangeably: “we went to the party afterward” or “we went to the party afterwards” are equivalent in meaning and grammatical correctness.

So long as we’re using them in the right context and in the right place in the sentence, the words are grammatically correct.

Adverbs of Degree, Manner, Frequency, Place, or Time

An adverb describes when, where, how, or to what extent something happens. They can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, but they cannot directly modify nouns or pronouns.

Adverbs of place describe where something happens, usually by showing the direction in which a verb acts. For example, in “he put the book up on the shelf,” the adverb “up” modifies the verb “put” to describe where the shelf is — it must be a high shelf.

Adverbs of time communicate when something happens. These include words like “early,” “yesterday,” “now,” and a whole slew of others as well as “afterward.” Adverbs of time are incredibly helpful for defining time more specifically than verb tenses.

Adverbs of frequency differ from time adverbs in that they describe how often something happens. These adverbs range from “never” to “always” with “sometimes” about halfway in between them. Adverbs of frequency help quantify general statements.

Adverbs of manner describe how something is done. These adverbs are typically easy to spot because they often end in -ly: “Dane quickly ran across the field to catch the frisbee.” Be wary of “hard” and “fast” because they look the same whether they function as an adjective or an adverb.

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Adverbs of degree show to what extent someone or something acts. They do this by communicating qualities, conditions, relations, states, or properties of an action (source). For example, one may tie a bow perfectly or slightly miss the basketball hoop.

Final Thoughts

Both “afterward” and “afterwards” are equivalent in meaning and grammatical correctness. These adverbs of time can communicate a sequence of events in the past, a general consequence, or plans for the future. 

They can appear in an invitation or conditional permission. Further, “afterward” and “afterwards” can describe an immediate sequence or one with larger gaps of time.

Regardless of whether you prefer the slightly more American “afterward” or somewhat British “afterwards,” you can confidently use them!