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In some English language user interfaces, both virtual and physical, the words back and forward are used instead of backward and forward.

An easy example is the web browser, where the buttons to navigate the history of a tab are labelled back and forward. Why is it back and not backward?

In French, the words are "précédent" and "suivant", which means "previous" and "next" and are opposites contrary to back and forward.

migrated from ux.stackexchange.com Sep 18 '14 at 0:25

This question came from our site for user experience researchers and experts.

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    Or why not "back" and "forth"? :) – user0721090601 Sep 18 '14 at 2:31
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is (only) about the choice of terms for user interfaces in software products (see the OP comment to this answer). – Drew Sep 19 '14 at 14:29
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    Strange that this was migrated here from UX, when I would have proposed a migration in the opposite direction, as it is about user interface conventions. – choster Sep 19 '14 at 15:10
  • @choster. (FWIW, I agree.) Perhaps because (a) folks over there are not that aware of what EL&U is about, or (b) folks there did not pay attention to this being about UI conventions, or (c) UI conventions are off-topic over there (?), or they don't care much about the history or past rationale for now-established UI conventions. Just guesses. – Drew Sep 21 '14 at 15:59
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    For what it's worth, since this question is here, I reckon it should be answered in regards to the difference (if there is any) between back in "Go back" and backward/backwards in "Go backward". That is a matter of English, although it's also relevant to UX. – Andrew Leach Sep 22 '14 at 21:48
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I'll take a kick at this can, but it is pure speculation. Maybe someone can come up with a documented answer.

Firstly, we should understand that "back" and "backward" are both adverbs. Both have a meaning which is "away from the front; toward the back". In this definition, they are synonymous.

The implied verb in "back" and "forward" is go, as in "go back" or "go forward." The statement "go backward" is grammatically correct but idiomatically it's not how we would say it in English -- at least, the forms of English I'm familiar with. Native English speakers are more likely to say "go back." Look at this comparative chart of how often "go back" and "go backward" are used.

That being said, in English user interfaces we will also use "previous" and "next". This is used more for a sequence of pages, such as Google results pages.

As for French, "précédent" and "suivant" don't have a monopoly, either. I often see buttons like "< Retour" to mean "< Back". And in my Chrome interface right now, if I hover over the back and forward buttons, I get "Réculer d'une page" and "Avancer d'une page". Internet Explorer gives me a mix: "Retour" and "suivant".

At the end of the day, what matters from a UX perspective is:

  • Your label is clear. "Backward" meets this criterion. A user would expect to go backward.
  • Your label is natural. "Backward" could cause a momentary hesitation, just because the wording is not an established convention.

Hope that helps! Bonne chance !

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    Plus, for me, Go back and Go backward(s) are a bit different. Go back is return from some starting point, go backward(s) implies moving — without a stopping point per se — in reverse. Oddly, neither go forward and go forth seem to have the same implication as go back does. Crazy English language. – user0721090601 Sep 18 '14 at 2:19
  • Interestingly "go forth" used to be more mainstream but "go forward" took the lead around 1915: books.google.com/ngrams/… – qwertzguy Jan 29 '15 at 4:00
  • And small nit: your link to google ngrams is unfortunately broken, the quotes needs to be removed in the query. – qwertzguy Jan 29 '15 at 4:05
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We don't say back and forward. We say back and forth. ;-)

Forward and backward are directions. Back, as in a back button, refers to going back to a previous state/position. Yes, that often involves also moving backward, i.e., traversing a sequence backward.

But when you say "Go back" you are emphasizing the destination, a previous state or position. The direction and how you might get there are not important (not emphasized).

If I ask whether you are going back to France, I'm not necessarily asking how you will get there. And I probably do not care whether you are retracing your steps backward, from how you got here from France. ;-)

Driving backward means driving in reverse gear. Driving back home means returning home, whatever the route taken.

  • When speaking between us yes and my question is precisely why is it different in user interfaces of computers or even devices? Like a DVD player would have buttons labelled: back and forward. Why? – qwertzguy Sep 19 '14 at 9:50
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    If your question is limited to why it is different in UIs then I believe that it is off-topic. But I'm no expert on that. – Drew Sep 19 '14 at 14:27
  • I originally posted this question in UXstack exchange -_- – qwertzguy Sep 21 '14 at 15:39
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    UX is where it belongs, IMO. The choice of terms to use for the UI was apparently not based on any English rules, but was likely based on some UI considerations (perhaps simply saving space!). – Drew Sep 21 '14 at 16:06
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The other answers thoroughly explained the English usage for "go back" and "back" and "backward".

Given the context of the question and the specific inquiry, "Why do we use..." it is most likely due to user interface design considerations. "Back" has fewer letters than "backward". Brevity is preferable.

  • But then why forward? – qwertzguy Sep 21 '14 at 14:55
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    See my guesses in a comment to your question. The folks on SE might not even realize that UI considerations entered into the choice of terms for this, for the UI. They might have guessed that this is about English conventions, grammar rules, or some such. – Drew Sep 21 '14 at 16:05
  • @Drew "Given the context of the question and the specific inquiry, "Why do we use..." it is most likely due to user interface design considerations." – Ellie Kesselman Oct 4 '14 at 14:45
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    @EllieKesselman: That's my guess too. My guess is specifically: to save space (screen real estate). Back is clear enough. Some browsers just reduce the space to what is needed for a left arrow (right arrow for forward). Abbreviations are common in UI, especially when clear enough. – Drew Oct 4 '14 at 15:48
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    @EllieKesselman: FWIW, took a look at your website - "Not enough Thorsten Veblen!" Indeed. Keep up the good work. – Drew Oct 6 '14 at 21:14
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Usually, when you go 'back' there is a destination in mind. As @Drew says - your precise route backwards is not usually the point. On the other hand, often, when you go ahead the destination is unclear and the route forwards is all you actually know. Strategists engage in forwards thinking without necessarily having a goal in mind. When you do know the position ahead that you are heading to, you go to the fore.

  • But in the case of a web browser for example, we do know the destination, the goal when clicking the 'forward' button and it's precise, since if isn't then the button is disabled. (my question is about usage of the words in user interfaces, not in literature). – qwertzguy Jan 29 '15 at 3:51
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I propose it is analogous to pages in a book. Also, similar usage happens when playing a board game: roll the dice and move forward X spaces; draw a card and go back one space. Both are examples of a linear progression of positions.

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I'll take a stab at this.

The reasoning behind the usage of "Back" and "Forward" is to elicit the simplest response that will let the end user know exactly what the function of the button they're pressing does.

The statement "Back" immediately upon hearing it brings to mind movement that one has already visited, and signifies a desire to "Return". (bonus points if you realize why the Enter key used to be referred to as the "Return" key.)

Similarly, "Forward" implies to the end user that you have already visited a location which you have a desire to return to.

There's little doubt that they were most likely chosen due to their monosyllabic conveyance. They are the words that are able to convey the largest amounts of meaning using the smallest amount of bits. In a time when internet browsers were new and hard drives were much, much smaller in size, "-wards" would have been considered an unnecessary allocation of bits, especially in a time when the commands for the equivalent "back" in MSDOS directory navigation was ".."

  • Thank you for your answer, but my question was about why don't we use backward instead of back? – qwertzguy Jan 9 at 23:57

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