Basics of writingGrammar

Up, down, and -ward words

Up, down, and -ward words

From Rick:

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Consider the following sentence:

—Not two minutes after he sat down in the chair, he stood up and hurried towards the door.

Is there anything wrong with it?

How many of you would use the following words or phrases:

—He lifted up the end of heavy couch without any effort.
—She raised up her arms.
—He moved forwards then backwards.

There are two problems being illustrated here.

Let’s address the -ward/-wards words first.

Many of us will say or write “towards” instead of “toward.” The problem is that unless you’re from a country that uses British English, “towards” is not the preferred word. In American English, the preferred usage is “toward.” The same applies to most of the adverbs ending in -ward: forward, backward, onward, upward, downward afterward, and others that are directional in nature (northward, westward, rearward, frontward).

The -wards forms are not incorrect, but in American English they’re considered less proper and are not the preferred forms. If you want your writing to be taken seriously, you should not use the -wards forms if you’re writing in American English except in dialogue, and then only when your characters would talk that way.

I don’t see as much of a problem with using “backwards” in a phrase like “you’ve got it backwards,” only because many people will say it that way instead of “you’ve got it backward.”


What about the “up” and “down” verbs?

In a post two weeks back, I talked about “phrasal verbs” that use “on” and “in.” Here’s the link to that post.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing “he sat down” or “she stood up.” However, the use of “up” or “down” is redundant.

In the case of “sat down” we could simply say “sat” because the “down” is implied. The same applies to “stand.” Sitting and standing both have a direction of movement implied in the verb.

The phrasal verb “to sit up” doesn’t carry the same direction implication as “to sit down.” It means to straighten your back while sitting. But we do hear “sit up straight” being used. While that is still redundant wording (because one doesn’t “sit up crooked” or “sit up slouching”), it’s less a problem because it’s such a common expression, and it’s almost more expected to hear that said than simply “sit up.”

The phrasal verb “to stand up” also carries other meanings:

“To stand up” means to endure, confront, or defend

—The house stood up under the violent storm.
—He stood up to the bully.
—She stood up for him in court against the accusations.

At a wedding “to stand up with” refers to the best man or maid of honor being with the groom or bride as a show of support.

When it comes to the verbs rise, raise, and lift, we find similar things.

—Raise the flag.
—He lifted the chair.
—You raise me up in time of trouble.
—You lift me up when I’m down.
—The people rose up against their oppressive king.

You should not say

—Raise up the flag.
—He lifted up the chair.

because the “up” is inherent in the verbs.

But we would not say

—You raise me in time of trouble.
—You lift me when I’m down.
—The people rose against their oppressive king.

because those wordings would be unclear or awkward or both.

There’s nothing wrong with including the preposition for emphasis:

—I told you to sit down!

I am not saying that you should remove all unnecessary “ups” and “downs.” What I am advising is that you be conscious of using them and consider possible alternative wording that more clearly expresses the situation.

—He raised up his eyebrows in surprise. (He lifted his eyebrows.)
—She turned her head down. (She lowered her head.)
—He raised his eyes to the ceiling. (He looked at the ceiling.)

The only exception might be that third sentence. If the character is in a reverse-gravity or zero-gravity situation where the room is flipped and the ceiling would be down and the floor up from his perspective, then the directional indicators would be fine.

—Wait a minute. Why was he looking down at the ceiling and looking up at the floor?

Keep your writing clean and in touch with conventions. Use the -ward and -wards words appropriate to the language region you’re in, and eliminate unnecessary words or revise sentences to better express your intent.

Show your readers that you take the time to understand good writing practices. The cleaner and more precise your writing, the better the impression you will make. Reviewers don’t always mention good writing habits, but bad and annoying ones get pointed out. Don’t give your readers and reviewers this reason not to recommend your books.


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