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This month, you might well be sick to the back teeth of seeing the word BACK in your business emails from English-speakers. Kids are going back to school, suppliers are back at work, at last and customers promise to get back to you with updates on your unpaid invoices as soon as humanly possible.


BACK is confusing because it has a lot of applications in English. It can be a verb or a noun, with several meanings for each group, but one of the most common uses is in combination with movement verbs like go back, come back or get back, all with a sense of “returning”. If you’re a Schwarzenegger fan, you’ll know that you can be back, too, also meaning that you have ‘returned’, and if you prefer not to mess about with phrasal verbs when you’re speaking English anyway, you can use the verb ‘return’ to substitute all of these nasty expressions with BACK and go for a coffee, but if you’re curious…

The Three-Step Return

When you go back or come back, you do a return journey TO the place where you originally started from. When the return journey ends, you get back to your starting point, indicating that you’ve arrived. Finally, when the journey is finished and forgotten, you just say that you are back at the office (or wherever) and ready for whatever your correspondent wants to throw at you. When you’re still on the journey, you use movement verbs, so you go back, come back or get back TO your destination. When your return is complete, you stop moving and announce that you are back AT the office, for now, at least.

Going Back, not Backing

If you can get used to using go back and its variants as an alternative for the easier verb ‘return’, it will help you to understand them and their nuances when you’re listening to natives and once you’ve got the idea, it’s easy to extend the basic go back to more specific versions like fly back, drive back or walk back. You can use a lot of different verbs with BACK to mean ‘returning’, but you need a verb of some kind, even if it’s just ‘be’. BACK can be a verb, but it doesn’t have the meaning of returning that you’re probably looking for… I’ll be looking at the two main senses of BACK as a verb in my next blog in a couple of weeks. Good luck with the battles until then…

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