English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is “refer back” redundant?

Q: I often hear folks (even on the news) “refer back” to something. Do they need to add “back” here? Is it not enough to “refer” to something?

A: You’re not alone in considering this usage redundant. Some usage writers have criticized the verb phrase “refer back” since at least as far back as the 1920s.

George Philip Krapp, for instance, condemned it in The English Language in America (1927) as “a crude pleonasm for refer.” (A pleonasm is a redundancy.)

We disagree with Krapp, and we’re not alone. Many other language writers have pooh-poohed the belief that it’s redundant to “refer back” to something.

Theodore M. Bernstein, for example, points out in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971) that the word “back” here “may in some instances be superfluous, but it is not normally redundant.”

“The notion of back is not at all prominent or even necessarily present in the word refer, which has as its primary reason to direct attention to,” Bernstein writes.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agrees: “Back may seldom be necessary with refer, but the ‘backward’ connotations of refer are usually not strong, and back can be useful in reinforcing them.”

Merriam-Webster’s gives several examples of the usage by respectable writers, including this one from George Orwell’s 1946 book Politics and the English Language: “I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary.”

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says some people “consider the phrase refer back to be redundant, since refer contains the prefix re–, which was brought into English from Latin and originally meant ‘back.’ ”

“But such an argument is based on what linguists call the ‘etymological fallacy’—the assumption that the meaning of a word should always reflect the meanings of the words, roots, and affixes from which it was derived,” American Heritage says.

The dictionary adds that “most words change their meanings over time, often to the point where their historical roots are completely obscured. Such change is natural and usually goes unnoticed except by scholars.”

“We conduct inaugurations without consulting soothsayers (augurs), and we don’t necessarily share bread (panis in Latin) with our companions,” the usage note says.

As for “refer,” American Heritage says it’s “quite often used in contexts that don’t involve the meaning ‘back’ at all, as in The doctor referred her patient to a specialist or Please refer to this menu of our daily specials.

The dictionary says the position of its Usage Panel on “refer back” has shifted dramatically over the years:

“In 1995, 65 percent of the Panel disapproved of this construction, but by 2011, 81 percent accepted it in the sentence To answer your question it is necessary to refer back to the minutes of the previous meeting.”

With a word like “refer,” AH says, “where the ‘back’ meaning of re– has largely disappeared, adding back can provide useful semantic information, indicating that the person or thing being referred to has been mentioned or consulted before.”

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