The Grammarphobia Blog

Back dating

Q: For several years, I’ve noticed the pervasive use of “back” before dates, as in “back in 1999” or “back in June” (when said in September, say, of the same year). This seems to me redundant at best and ungrammatical at worst. Your thoughts?

A: The use of the adverb “back” in the sense of “in, to, or toward a past time” is standard English, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Is this usage redundant in phrases like the ones you mention? Perhaps sometimes, but people have been backing into times past for hundreds of years.

In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-72), for example, Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, says: “I have always been in favor of a little theory: we must have Thought; else we shall be landed back in the dark ages.”

And the English poet Robert Southey used “back” in the sense of “ago” in a 1796 letter describing the skeleton of an unidentified, elephant-sized animal at a museum in Spain:

“The bones are of an extraordinary thickness, even disproportionate to its size; it was dug up a few years back at Buenos Ayres.”

So why do people like the fictional Mr. Brooke add “back” while referring to a time in the past when the word isn’t absolutely necessary?

Perhaps they feel the usage adds informality to an otherwise dry statement. Or maybe they believe it improves the rhythm of the statement.

Like any usage, though, it can be overused. Our advice to anyone who’s bugged by it: don’t use it!

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