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Can backward and forward be used interchangeably with backwards and forwards, or is there some particular situation in which one pair is consistently used over the other?

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The first pair is American English; the second pair is British English. –  user21497 Mar 30 '13 at 14:45
@BillFranke That is not true. –  tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 15:15
Executive summary: AmE—Use backward and forward; backwards and forwards are uncommon, and if you use them in some parts of the country you might sound like a foreigner. BrE—Use backward and forward for adjectives; backwards and forwards for adverbs. On a ship: use for'ard. I've never seen for'ards, and Oxford Dictionaries Online doesn't have it either. –  Peter Shor Mar 30 '13 at 16:54
@PeterShor I’m pretty sure that a forward-thinking attitude in a backward-gazing world never have the ‑s on the ends of either of them. It seems that the directional modifiers (read: adverbs) on participial adjectives are exempt from any sort of interchangeability rule or regionalism, at least as far as I have been able to uncover. –  tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 16:57
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marked as duplicate by tchrist, Bill Franke, Carlo_R., RegDwigнt Mar 30 '13 at 16:58

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1 Answer

In British English (and possibly others), backward and forward are adjectives, and backwards/forwards are adverbs.

A person may be backward1 or forward; a car may be forward of a "Stop" line; one might move something forward (that is, to a position which is forward of its current position). However, when describing that movement itself, it's forwards.

Related question: Meaning of "backwards"

1 Using backward to describe some developmental abnormality is frowned upon and not recommended. In fact, describing someone as forward is rather dated, too.

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In AmE, we use them interchangeably. (Although backwards and forwards are less common.) –  Peter Shor Mar 30 '13 at 15:03
@PeterShor So you would say that a car is forwards of a Stop line? Or simply use forward as the adverbial form? –  St John of the Cross Mar 30 '13 at 15:05
Given that English adverbs are usually impossible to distinguish from English adjectives in actual constructions (how many ELU questions and answers suggest that something is or isn't an adverb, and speculate on why or why not?), I suspect that the rule quoted may be more honored in the breach than the observance throughout the UK. Is there a study of UK usage? Beyond "guides", I mean -- actual linguistic surveys with data and statistics. –  John Lawler Mar 30 '13 at 15:12
In the United States, the forms are used as @PeterShor describes. Their usage here is similar to that of toward(s) and beside(s). –  John Lawler Mar 30 '13 at 15:17
“-ward(s): The two forms are so nearly synonymous…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. Sometimes, however, the difference in the form of the suffix corresponds to a difference in the shade of meaning conveyed, though it would not be possible to give any general rule that would be universally accepted. … Hence -wards seems to have an air of precision…avoided in poetical use. There appears to be no appreciable difference…between…toward and towards;…” –  tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 15:28
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