In defense of 'anyways'

This is not a bit of backwater American slang. In fact, it's a word with nearly 1,000 years of history.

"Sounds illiterate."

"Used by people who don't know the difference between there, their, and they're."

"Obviously incorrect."

"Just an affectation."

What are these people going on about, anyways?

What they're going on about is anyways — with an s. Indeed, few words draw more fire from the sort of people who like to condemn other people's English.

Why? Well, as Minnesota Public Radio helpfully points out, you wouldn't say anyhows, so you don't say anyways. But more to the point, any takes only one: any thing, any idea, and so on. So anyway.

The only problem is that that's not where anyways comes from. The s is not a plural marker. I'll tell you what it is in a moment.

First, though, don't expect me to tell you to go ahead and use anyways wherever you want. Like ain't, it's simply not generally accepted as proper English. If you use it in a formal document (such as a job application), you may end up wishing you hadn't. The general attitude toward anyways is that it's backward — and besides, it's unnecessary.

The first known use of anyways was all the way back in the 13th century…meaning it's not a recent invention or an American one. And the s on anyways is the same s as you'll see on besides, towards, backwards, always, and quite a few other words, including family names such as Woods, Fields, and Rivers. It's also the same s as you'll see on Fathers' Day, Charlotte's Web, men's room, St. Kitts, and I work evenings. It comes from the old genitive, an inflection that was used to show a variety of kinds of relationship. A family named Rivers lived by one river, not several, for example; the s just associated them with it.

The modern-day descendant of the genitive is called the possessive (although it's used for more than just possession), and we use an apostrophe with it because some people mistakenly thought the s was short for his. But back when anyways first showed up — and besides, towards, and so on — there were more things you could do with the genitive.

In words such as besides, towards, backwards, and always, it was specifically what linguists call the adverbial genitive — it turned a word into an adverb (words such as once also come from that: It used to be ones). For several of these words, there is also an s-less sibling that originally served a different function: toward, backward, alway — yes, though that one isn't used now — and beside.

You may be wondering why there is no anyhows. It is because the word anyhow first started being used in the 1700s, a couple of centuries after the adverbial genitive stopped being used to make new words. Incidentally, the jokey anyhoo — a play on a regional dialect version of anyhow — was first used in the mid-1800s. It's mainly but not exclusively American. And anywho? A respelling of anyhoo first seen in the 20th century.

You will have noted that beside does not mean the same as besides. We use beside as a preposition to mean "next to," while we use besides as a sentence adverb to toss something on in discourse — it indicates that the whole thing we are saying is to the side, figuratively: "and besides, he's not that good at football." The function of anyway(s) is like the function of besides. So you might think, given the parallel in usage and history, that it would make sense for anyways to be the preferred version to match it. But it's not. Not now.

The two versions — anyway and anyways — are of about the same age (anyways may be slightly older). Neither version was all that heavily used until the later 1800s, but before then, both were used about equally and interchangeably, like toward and towards. In the later 1800s, however, as anyway became popular for tagging something on to a discussion, people thought it just didn't sound right to have an s on it… because none of them knew the real story of where it came from, and they thought the s was an illogical addition.

So there you have it. Because people didn't know where their words came from, and didn't (and still don't) bother finding out, anyways is not considered proper now. But that's OK, because its slangy air adds a shade of meaning — and it maintains that slangy air by being reviled by language peevers. It belongs to the same set as the venerable ain't: You can use it to show you ain't talkin' proper English anyways.


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