Toward or Towards

I’m pretty much a stickler for grammar rules. My newspaper background included drilling on AP Style rules, and because none of the papers I worked for had the budget to buy its reporters copies of this guide, I bought my own. Thumbed through it until the pages were dog-eared, wrinkled, loved.

Now I’m a Chicago Style girl–thanks to fully entering the publishing world–although I’m still learning.

Both AP and Chicago, being American institutions, prefer “toward” to the more British “towards.” So my style as a writer and editor and publisher is to always prefer “toward.”

That being said, as an editor of other people’s work, I do understand and appreciate how someone’s use of voice or characterization can come through in that character’s grammatical choices. This leads to slippery thinking occasionally, best worked out between the author and me in a real-time, in-person conversation, so we preserve the voice without totally wrecking convention and risking throwing an astute reader/editor type out of the story entirely because of our choice.

My first author Stevan Allred and I battled over a number of these tiny, seemingly insignificant choices, and I had such fun doing it. (I think he did too…)

One of them was “toward” vs. “towards.” He was adamant that one or two of his characters would use “towards.” I ultimately won that round, because I counted every instance of “toward,” and  every instance of “towards,” and reported the results. We took out two “towards” in a point of view character who was quite educated and probably would know to use “toward.” At that point, I think there were eleven or maybe fifteen “toward” uses, and three “towards” remaining. That unbalance, I felt, would make a reader feel like we hadn’t made a choice to favor one over the other, and that might make us look sloppy instead of coming across as a character note for that particular character. He agreed.

But now I’m editing the twenty-two short stories in our upcoming anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River, and different authors have different preferences. Technically both are correct. If an author uses both in a story, I feel like it’s license to switch them all to “toward,” but what about an author who is language conscious about pairing the word “towards” with other S-sounds in a sentence? In one story, for instance, I can guess that “towards” was used for sound, and to give a sense of the character’s voice.

The rules feel different here, editing an anthology; for one thing, I’m not the official editor on this project. That’s the brilliant, and discerning, Liz Prato. For another, here are twenty-two different writers, all serious about their craft, all making decisions with reasons, and yet I don’t want the quality or style to change from story to story, because we want this to be an even, measured reading experience. And we want it to conform to press standards, Forest Avenue style, which is mostly Chicago Style.

Changing things like “T.V.” to “TV” or converting all the different styles of dashes to our Forest Avenue Press style are obvious, but taking that “s” of “toward” definitely changes the sound. So what to do?

I don’t yet know, honestly. I’m working through the stories, and sending them back to Liz one by one, with my notes in the margins. We’ll see what she says, and we’ll see what the authors say. I think most will be okay with “toward,” but if it’s there for voice, and used intentionally, I expect we’ll consider keeping it, despite the risk of looking like we are uneven in our style decisions. Consistency vs. art. Style vs. voice. One author’s view of the words on the page vs. the other twenty-one authors. Liz’s thoughts vs. my thoughts vs. our copy editor’s thoughts.

I love this part: when we all chime in, and reach an agreeable decision, the discussions are fascinating, and the result makes the work stronger.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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19 Responses to Toward or Towards

  1. susielindau says:

    Maybe one way to look at it is when there is narrative, it should be toward and in conversation it should be towards, since that’s what we would say…. 🙂

    • I always say toward, though! So I guess in that sense, it’d be a character note. I just went over a story today where in two instances “that” was used instead of “who” to refer to a person, both instances in dialog. We decided to have the father say “who” because he’s older and would probably know the president was a “who” not a thing, and we allowed the young guy narrator to say “that” so it becomes a character note. Fun stuff, these tiny decisions, and the conversations that flow around them.

  2. Tricky stuff, isn’t it. And as a writer I can definitely see using towards for the sound of it, or because of the character’s background. But when I speak and write anything but dialogue, I use toward. Consistency seems important, but then there are times when you’re being inconsistent and you know it!

    Maybe the real question is, how is a reader going to respond?

    • Kevin, I love what you say about knowing we’re being inconsistent vs. doing it unconsciously! That’s how I’m reading these pieces, poking at voice to make sure any mistakes are intentional ones based on that character’s personality, which I accept and appreciate, and changing any that have no purpose. I guess in terms of reader response, it depends on who that reader is! I try to put on my average reader hat when doing these kinds of edits, and I am trying to balance how obviously an error or judgment call sounds like voice vs. it looking like a flat-out error. If it’s a tiny, innocuous thing, it probably won’t affect our reading of the character as much as look like an error. Which is sort of how I feel about toward/towards. I’ll be curious to see what Liz says about this issue, and it may be that we go back to the author whose use seems most conscious and get her to weigh in.

  3. Emma says:

    I was taught recently that American English uses “toward” and British English “towards” so that’s what I stick to these days in my stories. But you know what, writers and editors may be keeping a watch out for how we spell that word, but the general reader couldn’t care less.

    • Emma, thanks for chiming in! I never learned that rule, but I have since seen that distinction in numerous places, and that speaks to why AP and Chicago both prefer “toward.” You make a great point that the general reader won’t care. Would you care if you ran into “toward” in one story and “towards” in another? I can make the case for consistency within a story, but with all these different authors, I’m working on where to draw that line.

  4. Laura, I think I use “toward” but I do agree with Emma. Does the general reading notice?

    • Really good question, Florence. And maybe that’s why I often fall on the side of consistent usage, because it being two different ways in one story might be more noticeable than the original decision of which one to use.

  5. I love this so much it’s insane! I love that there’s an even bigger stickler than I am. I also love that you’re now doing Chicago Style. Hello, Oxford comma!! As for toward vs towards, I think that’s one that trips me a little when I’m writing and I have to stop and think about it. I think generally when I write I use toward. But speaking is a different matter – that depends on register and dialect. Great food for thought!

    • I am a total stickler, with a huge weak spot, Edee, and that’s the fact that I never had strict grammar instruction. I learned myself by studying the manuals. So sometimes I don’t have the right words to explain the rule, or why it’s correct, and I have to look it up to share the official reason for why it’s that way with my authors. (Shh… don’t tell!) I could see some of your southern characters using “towards” because it sort of draws/drawls out there at the end more than the clipped “toward.”

  6. Emily J. says:

    As a former editor, I prefer “toward” as well, but I can see Stevan’s point about a character saying it differently. Even with my English training, I don’t always speak correctly, but I do try to write that way! So I can see how speech and a character’s dialogue would come into play. This post was fascinating!

    • I know Stevan’s so careful in crafting his characters, so I didn’t challenge him until I looked at the numbers and realized that a few “towards” wouldn’t change our sense of the voice but might make a reader feel like the book hadn’t been edited properly. At that point he agreed. With the short story anthology, I don’t know most of the writers, or their styles, so I’ve definitely started questioning some things here and there, just to see if they were intentional, and if so I’ll give that authorial voice-driven decision some weight. How much weight might depend on who else has done it differently, and whether I can change one to match the other without losing anything. It’s such an interesting process–and part of editing that I never had to deal with in journalism, because AP Style is AP Style, and a word or bit of punctuation is either correct or incorrect.

  7. sophifrost says:

    I like that approach Susie

  8. I’m picky about some things, but I think dialog is one thing (I’ve always written “dialogue,” but my keyboard seems to prefer “dialog” — I’ll have to look into this…), first-person narration is another, and third-person narration is a third.

    Dialog(ue) should be however that character would speak. I had a situation recently of having to write a fairly long paragraph (a description of someone’s clothing and physical appearance), spoken by someone who usually says very little (and most of what she does say is often curse words). I think it came out in her voice, but it certainly wasn’t grammatical.

    First-person narration basically the same, though I think you have to clean it up a bit or you risk annoying the reader. (Also, here’s a rule I just made up: if you’re not really great at dialect, don’t.)

    Third person should be grammatically correct and consistent (and appropriate to your target audience).

    I just put up a blog post that has a link about the serial comma, by the way — and a couple of other things, too.

    • I prefer dialogue but am trying to convert to dialog, which I understand is the more standard option, but I haven’t dug far into it, so let me know what you learn! I like your point about first-person narration needing to be reader-friendly, while in dialog, the author can just go for it and be as voicey as possible without much risk of distracting the reader. But I’m not so sure about third-person having to be grammatically correct. I could see a close-in third person story featuring some particular tics or usages that would convey something about that character.

      • You’re right. My (writing) experience with third person has been with an omniscient narrator, so that’s what I was thinking about. Certainly your point applies to, for example, Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which is full of (wonderful) tics and usages that convey things about the protagonist.

  9. 4amWriter says:

    This is a tough one. My father is 100% British and my mother American. They used “towards” and “toward” respectively, so I grew up using both. I think that when we’re dealing with fiction, we do have to take into account the character’s background, habits, education, etc. Then that character probably should be consistent (even though in my reality I used both versions). I think a reader would think it to be a typo if one character used both versions.

    As far as an anthology, yikes! My suggestion is to aim for consistency, no matter the authors’ preferences. Even though you have multiple writing styles, the stories/essays/poems are all in the same book for a reason. There needs to be a sense of cohesiveness across the board. Otherwise, it will look like it wasn’t edited properly.

  10. jmmcdowell says:

    Wow, previous commenters are raising great questions, and I can see a reason for choosing strict consistency across the anthology and for letting individual authors choose what sounds right for their stories and characters.

    If you opt for writer voice over consistency, how about a note in the foreword that says this is what the press and editor have chosen to do? Then, any sticklers in the audience will know that any “inconsistencies” are from respect of the authors’ voices and not a matter of sloppy editing.

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