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What's the difference to these expressions, as in "The little girl was hiding in back of the tree" vs. "The little girl was hiding back of the tree" vs. "The little girl was hiding behind the tree"?

In addition, do "in back of" and "back of" have any currency in AE today? Plus, are these idioms safe to use for all proses, even the most formal one?

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Rather equal. Both are used currently. –  David M Mar 24 at 19:23
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@David: It's stretching things a bit to say they're "equal". Relatively speaking, dialectal in back of X has virtually no currency compared to behind X. –  FumbleFingers Mar 24 at 19:42
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There's a usage note given in RHK Webster's: usage: Although some object to their use, the phrases 'in back of' and the shorter - and much older - 'back of' with the meaning “behind” are fully established as standard in American English: 'They played (in) back of the house.' Both phrases occur in all types of speech and writing, though 'behind' may be easily substituted if desired.>> This implies that even this purely locative usage has been bleached of some of its original ('there must be a back involved') constraints. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 24 at 19:45
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The tree doesn't have a "back", so you have to say she has was hiding "behind" the tree. The preposition "in back of" always means absolute position, while "behind" can either mean absolute or relative position. In other words, if the little girl was on the left side of a car, and I was on the right side, I could say that I couldn't see her because she was behind the car. But she wouldn't be in back of the car. –  Peter Shor Mar 24 at 20:03
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As Fillmore points out, where the "back" of the tree is depends on where the observer is with relation to the tree. But that's strictly relative to one situation, because trees don't have a back, whereas house often does. In that case, behind the house means out of the observer's sight on the other side of the house, while in back of the house is more likely to refer to the absolute "back" part of the house, regardless of the observer's position. So they could be different in the right context. –  John Lawler Mar 24 at 21:21

1 Answer 1

To give a formal answer to this question -- As you can see from comments above, there is disagreement amongst native speakers on this matter:

For many speakers of AmE, in back of and behind are used fairly interchangeably as prepositions.

In general, behind represents the relative position to the speaker. So, if the speaker is standing to one side of a car, the object may be behind the car if it is on the far side of the car. In other words, it is not necessary for the relative position to be the rear of the object, but that the object be located between the speaker and the subject.

In back of can represent this same relationship.

The confusing part: if the object has a back or a rear, the relative position does not necessarily dictate the meaning of the preposition. In other words, if the speaker and the subject are both at the rear of a house, they are both in back of or behind the house.

If the subject is front of the house, and the speaker is behind the house, few would now say the subject is behind the house even if it is, relative to the speaker. This will seem confusing compared to the situation with the car above. My instinct is that this has more to do with perception than anything else. The rear of a house is a very distinctive location. The rear of a car is at best a few feet from its side.

If there is any difference between the two: to my ear, in back of sounds vaguely colloquial. I cannot find any data on this, and I doubt this is universal for all speakers of AmE. An attempt to plot an NGRAM of in back of yields relatively few results, especially when compared to behind.

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