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I think the term "back and forth" gets thrown around a lot without much thought.

From Dictionary.com:

forth    [fawrth, fohrth]

adverb 1. onward or outward in place or space; forward: to come forth; go forth.

Wouldn't the term be more meaningful if "forth" was used first since you have to have a starting place before you can go "back"?

Example:

  • I've been going back and forth from Houston to New York.
  • I've been going forth and back from Houston to New York.

Which is more correct?

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I've never heard "forth and back". Think of it like a swing. You must go back first to go forth. "Forth and back" seems to imply backwards motion. –  American Luke Aug 3 '12 at 15:40
    
@Luke Er, though if you go forth on a swing, it'll come back! :-) –  Tony Balmforth Aug 3 '12 at 15:44
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And forth you'll go again... try it... –  American Luke Aug 3 '12 at 15:50
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@hydroparadise I'd say "I've been going back and forth between Houston and New York." –  American Luke Aug 3 '12 at 15:58
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Between 1650 and 1750, Google books finds four uses of "forth and back", and no genuine uses of "back and forth" (the ones it finds are either misdated, or coincidences like "the horse's back, and forth ..."), but some time thereafter, the idiom got turned heels over head. You see lots of instances of "back and forth" starting in the 1790s. –  Peter Shor Aug 3 '12 at 16:42

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Back and forth" is the more correct idiom, because, well, that's the idiom. There's nothing to stop you from saying "forth and back" — a little voice is repeating the subtitle to The Hobbit, which is There and Back Again, to me — but you won't be using the English idiom, you'll merely be speaking words.

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This instantly made me think of The Hobbit. Glad I'm not the only one who had their memory jogged. :D +1 –  American Luke Aug 3 '12 at 17:21

This type of expression involves two words comprising, usually with the conjunction and or or, a collocation probably most commonly known as Siamese twins. There exist similar expressions where more than three words are joined, eg hook, line and sinker. The fact that an alternative term for the doublet is irreversible binomials shows that the ordering is non-negotiable.

The ordering may be:

as required by logic (eg armed and dangerous , man and wife)

sensible (eg cat and mouse , fish and chips)

arguably illogical (eg back and forth)

just the way the expression has crystallised (eg eyes and ears)

but in any case, the ordering is fixed.

Some Siamese twins consist of two synonyms, which would also seem illogical (eg nook and cranny, vim and vigour). The fact is that the ordering of expressions, and the expressions themselves, have become fixed by repeated use; perhaps 'span and spic' originally didn't 'sound right' - most people would say it certainly doesn't now.

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It's a bizarro day when someone like me is the one to bring up sexism, but: Why is "man and wife" required by logic? I suppose if you assume that we will use the non-parallelism of "man" versus "wife", as opposed to "husband and wife", you might say that it makes sense for "man" to come first, else who is she the wife of. But there's nothing inherently illogical about "wife and husband". –  Jay Aug 3 '12 at 17:59
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We often order the words just because we prefer the sounds in that order. There are patterns that come up time and again such as "i" before "a", "o" or "er" (flim flam, spic and span, me and mine, sing song, tick tock, jingle jangle, ding dong, his and hers, king and country, ...). –  Pitarou Aug 3 '12 at 18:47
    
@Jay: Interesting point. Maybe it started as husband and wife when that seemed less sexist and more logical, but by the time that ordering became less logical and more arbitrary, the expression had already been crystallized that way. There's nothing inherently illogical about a jelly-and-peanut butter sandwich either, but that's not how we generally say it. –  J.R. Aug 4 '12 at 12:52
    
@JR Oh, I'm definitely not disputing that these phrases have acquired a standard order, and it sounds strange to reverse that order even when there's no inherent logical problem. Why DOES it sound so odd to say a "jelly and peanut butter sandwich"? But it does. –  Jay Aug 6 '12 at 15:10
    
@Jay Logic requires either 'man and wife' or 'woman and husband'. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 27 at 19:34

The phrase back and forth is in contemporary language nothing but the more oft-heard rendering of that age-old expression hither and thither. In both pairs, the paired elements are indicating first motion towards one’s current place and then motion away from it, and in that order.

You might just as well ask why the idiom is to say here and there rather than the other way around. By the same measure, why is it urbi et orbi and not its reverse — or coming and going, arrivals and departures, and even in and out? That is, why is it that we invariably name our current place first in all these expressions, these idioms, these fossilized phrases that have come down to us intact and inseparable, and irreversible?

There can be no definitive answer to why frozen idioms came to gel in one shape and not another, but perhaps here it is because of some predisposition or inclination towards thinking of the world from the perspective of one’s present location within that outer world. If it happened to Copernicus, it can happen to anybody.

In contrast, when speaking of voyages and journeys, the emphasis is usually reversed, because it is the destination that is of primary importance, the trip itself. That’s why The Hobbit has There and Back Again, meaning “going there and coming back home again”. It’s why a round-trip ticket (that is, a “return” ticket in the UK) in Spanish is an ida y vuelta ticket: going and returning. In both those cases, now it’s the other place that is the more important of the two, not the current one as we saw in the earlier cases.

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There's also the idiom "coming and going". –  Peter Shor Aug 3 '12 at 16:45
    
Interesting thoughts! –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Aug 3 '12 at 19:39

To me, back and forth seems to imply more than one iteration. It suggest a return trip has already been made (back), yet a new trip has begun (and forth), so I'll need to travel at least one more time before reaching my starting place.

Perhaps it's the favored ordering of this word pair simply because it suggests that multiple trips are being made – rather than a one-time sojourn, which could be implied by forth and back.

It's a subtle distinction, not an obvious one, so I'm not stating this dogmatically.

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