Backward - backwards

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Writers sometimes ask "what is the difference between backward and backwards (with the '-s')?" The answer is in essence that writers of British English prefer backwards for the adverb, while writers of American English prefer backward. For both varieties, the form backward is preferred for adjectives, although it should be noted that these are only tendencies, not absolute rules.

You may also want to see AWE's page on the suffix ward (or wards), where you may see that backward was occasionally used as a noun to mean what is now called a rearguard, and has also been called a rearward and arrearward.
  • Two adverbial usages may be worthy of note:
    • 'leaning [etc] over backwards' means "to go to the opposite extreme (in order to avoid a possible bias, etc.); to go almost too far in the effort to overcome one's inclination. colloq[uial]. (orig. U.S.)" (OED).
    • to 'know something backwards' is to know it well, 'to know it like the back of your hand' or 'to know it inside out'.
  • The adjective is usually backward - on-line Fowler says that it is "the correct form in standard English", although OED says only that backwards (adjective) is "Obs[olete]. rare.".
    • One warning to note: the usage 'a backward child', or 'the backward class', to mean 'people who have fallen behind in their learning', whether from deprivation or from learning disabilities, is no longer regarded as acceptable. AWE strongly recommends all writers of academic English never to use backward in this pejorative sense.
You may also want to see AWE's article on Forward - forwards.