What is the difference between backwards, backward, and backwardly? They're all adverbs, but I feel like there's some sort of difference in their meanings and uses.

Although this question is similar to ""Backward" versus "backwards" -- is there any difference?", that particular question doesn't mention "backwardly".

Backward (US), Backwards (UK)


in a reverse or contrary direction or way

Cambridge Dictionary

towards the direction that is opposite to the one in which you are facing or opposite to the usual direction:

Cambridge defines backwardly

towards the direction that is the opposite to the one in which you are facing:

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster defines backwardly as an adverb but provides no examples of usage that I can see.

Are all three terms interchangeable? Is there any difference in meaning between the three sentences below?

  1. She glanced backward over her shoulder.
  2. She glanced backwards over her shoulder.
  3. She glanced backwardly over her shoulder.

Since "backwards" and "backward" are the same and just different variants (UK and US, respectively), I am mainly interested inhow they differ from "backwardly", which has its own, separate entry in the Cambridge Dictionary.

  • 3
    Hi, please include what you have found in the dictionary and where you are confused by the meaning. I encourage you to take the tour and see the EL&U help center.
    – livresque
    Mar 12, 2023 at 22:04
  • Actually, Merriam-Webster and Cambridge disagree: "Backward" is recognized as an adverb, not just colloquially. And, Merriam-Webster gives the adverb as the first definition. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/backward Mar 12, 2023 at 23:18
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    For the same reason that ""Backward" versus "backwards" -- is there any difference?" is also posted here but it has not been closed... english.stackexchange.com/questions/2426/… I believe it belongs better here, since it is not a Learners issue, after further thinking about it. Word definitions and differences are everywhere on this site. Mar 12, 2023 at 23:30
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    The OP has shown effort and provided research, the only thing missing, IMO, was a concrete example to illustrate more clearly their puzzlement
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 13, 2023 at 15:53
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    Note that backwardly is a very rare term: books.google.com/ngrams/… - Cambridge Dictionary Provides usage examples: dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/backwardly
    – user 66974
    Mar 14, 2023 at 14:50

1 Answer 1


The only real difference that I can tease out, other than frequency trends over the years, is that backwardly can be more easily used comparatively than backward(s), the latter pair being less gradable. For instance, a feature of primate skeletons is the backwardly-facing head of the humerus. Now it doesn't face backwards, it only faces backwards of the sagittal plane. Things that spin can only spin forwards or backwards; so there's no need for gradability. But in a less constrained situation, forwardly movement and backwardly movement means that there is some component of the movement in the indicated direction. Also, software might be touted as backward compatible, but turn out to be less backwardly compatible than had been hoped for.

  • 1
    I haven't considered this distinction, but I once posted in a.u.e. about beside(s) and toward(s). Similar tactics may work. Mar 17, 2023 at 1:40
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    The literal use is in regard to an antiparallel orientation relative to some spatial vector. Extending it to time vectors is natural enough - Say the spell then drink the potion - and don't get it backward(s). It is further extended in the sense of reversing two things such as cause and effect. None of these appears to apply any selection pressure as far as the s-versions are concerned.
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 17, 2023 at 14:08

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