If you want it back ...

I'm doing a school project and need to figure out parts of speech in my letter that I wrote, but, I dont know what "back" is, can anyone help?

  • @WSJ None of your examples are nouns, they are adjectives. – Mark Beadles Oct 13 '18 at 18:20

This is a good question. Traditional nineteenth century grammarians and most twentieth century ones classified it as an adverb. The reason is that it did not fit their definitions of nouns, verbs, adjectives or prepositions.

However, many twentieth century grammarians since the 1920s, realised that back and similar words have none of the properties of adverbs and nearly all the properties of traditional prepositions. They recognised that the traditional word class preposition was badly conceived and needed to be rethought, because these types of words, like back, away, out and so forth were clearly the same types of word as in, on and at. They also recognised that the name for this category of word, preposition, is a bad one. However, they thought it would be too difficult to change.

Most serious twenty-first century grammarians and syntacticians now recognise words like back and away to be intransitive prepositions. They are described as intransitive because they take no 'object'.

These are the ways that words like back are not like adverbs:

  1. Adverbs cannot be used as predicative complements of the verb BE:

    • *The guards are locally. (ungrammatical)
    • The guards are back.
  2. In standard Englishes, adverbs cannot usually be modified by the specialised adverbs straight and right

    • *The guards returned right recently. (ungrammatical)
    • *The guards returned straight recently. (ungrammatical)
    • The guards ran straight back.
    • The guards ran right back.
  3. Most adverbs can be modified by the adverb very.

    • very recently
    • *very back. (ungrammatical)
  4. It is extremely rare for adverb phrases to be able to modify nouns, but back-phrases can:

    • *the very beautifully people (ungrammatical)
    • *the people very beautifully (ungrammatical)
    • the people back home
  5. Adverbs cannot be used as locative complements of verbs such as put:

    • *Put the pen locally. (ungrammatical)
    • Put the pen back.

Now see that regular prepositions, that take noun phrase complements, pattern just like back:

  1. Complements of BE:

    • The guards are back.
    • The guards are in town.
  2. Modification by straight and right:

    • The guards ran straight back.
    • The guards ran right back
    • The guards ran straight through the building.
    • The guards ran right through the building.
  3. modification by very:

    • *very back (ungrammatical)
    • *very through the tunnel (ungrammatical)
  4. noun modification:

    • people back home
    • people in France
  5. Locative complements:

    • put the pen back
    • put the pen on the table


Traditional twentieth century grammars (and hence most dictionaries, which are wildly out of date) regard back as an adverb. Modern academic grammars classify back as a preposition. Unless the Original Poster has a lot of time to explain why back is a preposition, they might be better off describing it as an adverb in their project.

Alternatively, they could cite a modern academic reference grammar such as:

  • Oxford Modern English Grammar by Bas Aarts, 2011.
  • A Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston & Pullum, 2005.
  • 1
    OED still has back as an adverb, but it hasn't been updated since 1885. However, it also says "aphetic for aback" which is definitely an adverb. It's not clear what they intend aphetic to mean. – Andrew Leach Oct 13 '18 at 16:39
  • @RegDwigнt Thanks for the edits! :) (Although, I still think 1920's is better than 1920s. Kind of eases the transition from numerals to wordy-type affixes, though my thinking is now considered old-fashioned, so I'll yield to our stylistic judgement there ... ) – Araucaria Oct 13 '18 at 22:05
  • 1
    @Araucaria well yes, it's just that as soon as we drop the first two digits, as we so often do, we have to ditch the apostrophe, because nobody likes reading the '20's. And so it's only consistent if we just ditch it, period. One thing less to worry about. – RegDwigнt Oct 13 '18 at 22:09
  • @AndrewLeach Oxforddictionaries.com defines apehetic as an adjective derived from aphesis and aphesis as "The gradual loss of an unstressed vowel at the beginning of a word (e.g. of e from esquire to form squire)". That describes exactly what could have happened to aback to form the adverb back. Doesn't mean they were right, just explains their thinking. – BoldBen Oct 13 '18 at 22:25
  • But, but, but ... You should never use a preposition to end a sentence with. – Hot Licks Oct 13 '18 at 22:45

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