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Imagine you're a personal trainer and you're explaining how to do an exercise. For example, you have a choice of two sentences:

  • Bring/draw/etc. your leg/arm/pelvis/etc. backward(s).

  • Bring/draw/etc. your leg/arm/pelvis/etc. back.

In which situations, to denote which movements would you use back and backward? Or are they interchangeable? Or does one of them sound better? Is it the same with "up" and "upward", "down" and "downward".

Thanks in advance!

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Both back and backwards can be used interchangeably in this context. Strictly speaking, "back" implies a specific location, while "backward" is the process of moving in that direction, but in practice, there is rarely a real distinction.

It is the same with "up" vs "upwards". "Up" is a specific location, while "upward" is the direction, but in practice there is little difference.

That said, the fact that the "~wards" form does indicate the process instead of the destination could be useful in the context of a personal trainer. If they want you to focus on the process, on slowing your movements and concentrating on correct form, "backwards"/"upwards"/"downwards" etc could be the better choice.

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The main meaning of backwards is "towards the direction that is opposite to the one in which you are facing".

back is a bit more complicated because, though it can mean backwards, its main meaning is "towards a previous place or condition". If your leg is in already in front of you, it is unambiguous, because the two meanings, backwards and "towards a previous place or position" mean the same.

If your leg is in its normal position directly beneath your body, "move your leg back" is still unambiguous, because it can only mean backwards.

If your leg is behind you, there is a possibility for confusion, because the backwards meaning indicates moving the foot further back, whereas "towards a previous place or position" would mean returning the foot to its normal position directly beneath your body.

That said, many people whose first language is not English, and also some native English speakers, will not understand the distinction. My advice when teaching motor skills is to try the shortest way of saying it. If that works, stick with it: if it doesn't work, try something different next time.

I would also recommend using the word move rather than bring, which usually means "to take or carry something".


As an aside, I have noticed that some Russian-speaking yoga teachers say "leg" when they mean "foot". I guess that the same word can be used for both in Russian.
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  • Backwards can have the exact same implication of back, regarding "previous place". I honestly wouldn't say there's a real distinction in that regard. I did think about that at first in my answer, but my first instinct was that "backwards" more strongly implied "reverse course" as opposed to "back", until I realized that both words really can do the same task. – Richard Winters Jan 29 at 10:56
  • @RichardWinters could you please provide a reference that indicates the "previous place" meaning? Cambridge Dictionary, Collins and Merriam-Webster do not offer that meaning. collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/backwards merriam-webster.com/dictionary/backwards – JavaLatte Jan 29 at 11:03
  • My initial reference is simply how I use the words as a native speaker, my own ideolect so to speak. That said, googling "define:backward" gives my definition as #2 under adverbs: "toward or into the past." – Richard Winters Jan 29 at 11:11
  • @RichardWinters yes, M-W offers the same definition, but I think that's a temporal rather than a spatial meaning. – JavaLatte Jan 29 at 11:57
  • To reiterate, where I grew up (mid-atlantic united states), and amongst the people I speak with, we definitely have used and do use "backwards" in this manner. I don't believe that "toward or into the past" excludes this usage. Imagine rewinding a video... that is moving it backwards, and the location of the images shown returns to a prior position. – Richard Winters Jan 29 at 12:21

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