-ward - -wards

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The suffixes -ward and -wards present various problems: in meaning, in form, and in pronunciation. (Note that there are compound nouns formed ending in -ward which are formed from the noun ward.) For Hayward, Woodward, Vanward, Vaward, and Rearward (where it is not simply an adverb meaning 'towards the back') see ward (meaning).

  • The general meaning is 'in the direction of [the first element in the compound]'. So 'homeward' (where the 'first element' is a noun) means 'towards [in the direction of] home'; with other nouns, for example, a sailor may steer in the direction of land (landwards), or go 'seawards' away from it, or a saint may turn her eyes heavenward; 'onwards' and 'upwards', where the first element is a preposition, prefix or adverb mean 'in a general direction' either 'further, to a more advanced position' or 'to a higher level'. (The phrase 'onwards and upwards' means 'making progress', 'getting better', and is usually applied in a context of general or personal improvement.) Backward(s) and forward(s) ('in the direction in which one is going' and its opposite) are adverbs.
  • The suffix (in either form) is used to make adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. In form, there is little to choose between -ward and -wards, though British English appears to prefer the form -wards for adverbs but not for adjectives; in American English. the form without -s is usually preferred.
OED says (s.v. -wards, suffix) "beside every adv[erb] in -ward there has always existed (at least potentially) a parallel formation in -wards, and vice versa. The two forms are so nearly synonymous (the general sense of the adv[erb]s being "in the direction indicated by the first element of the compound") that the choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form." OED cannot give a general rule to define the subtle differences in meaning that certainly do exist between some of the pairs.
    • There are occasional nouns formed with the -ward(s) suffix, such as 'to the northward (in a general direction towards the Pole Star). This is in essence the adjective used absolutely. The most common form for these nouns ends in -ward, with no '-s'.
  • Pronunciation. Most often, the final syllable in compound words formed with -ward(s) is reduced to a loose unstressed sound rather like 'words' (IPA: /wɜːrdz/. If clarity is desired, or the syllable is stressed, it resembles the sound of 'cords', 'hoards' and 'swords', (/wɔːrdz/).

See also articles on the individual words:

For nouns and verbs written as ward, see ward.