Burning questions about teaching English in China #8: You can never back home again 2

YouDao Cidian does a poor job translating “back”

Puzzler #8: Why do students misuse the adverb “back?”

Another common student mistake is the improper use of “back” as a free-standing verb, which of course it can be, but not in the sense most students use it.

Again, it seems such an easy thing to correct early on in English education that I wondered if some texts and dictionaries have the usage wrong. It is that widespread of an error.

So, I did a little research. My YouDao Cidian app gives as the first definition of “back” 回来 huílai: to return, to come back. Already this is a problem, because “back” requires a verb to convey the sense of returning somewhere. But, going from Chinese to English gives the correct usage, “come back,” as shown above.

Baidu, meanwhile, offers as the first definition, 后面 hòumiàn: rear, back, behind, later. It correctly uses “back” as an adverb to mean “return”:

She went back to her parents’ house.

The Sogou search engine follows Baidu’s example, and gives the correct usage.

So, the puzzle remains. Why do so many Chinese students get this wrong? After all, “to go/come back” is a very common phrasal verb in English, and one they would learn very early in their English learning career.

Like the words “make” and “let,” “back” is a very old word in English, dating from before the 12th century to mean “backward.” Over time, it acquired many more meanings and usages. It can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an adverb. This fluidity can be confusing, I must confess.

As a free-standing verb, “back” means to support someone or something.

I back your efforts all the way.

This meaning is related to the noun, “backing,” as in “She has her mother’s backing” (support). A related idiom is, “I have your back,” which means “I will support (or protect) you.”

But, when we use “back” in the sense of returning it MUST follow a verb like “go” or “come,” because then it acts as an adverb.

I really can’t wait to go back home.

When I come back to campus, I will see you again.

It is absolutely wrong to say:

I really can’t wait to back home.

When I back to campus, I will see you again.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Stop saying “I back home,” please. It’s very bad English. Thank you.


On the other hand, students have also used “eager” as a verb, which it isn’t, but it really should be.

My brother eagers to be a doctor.

While very ungrammatical, the meaning of this sentence is clear: his brother really wants to be a doctor. Using “eager” in this way, in my opinion, is concise and logical. But, “eager” is not a verb. It is only an adjective, often accompanying the verb “to be.”

My brother is eager to be a doctor.

Are you eagering an Acer?

Interestingly enough, the ancestor of “eager” is the Greek word acme, which means “point” (like the tip of a needle or the peak of a mountain). The Latin version of the word was acer (pronounced with a /k/ sound), which meant “sharp,” like the edge of a knife. (You may recognize the word as a Taiwan-based computer brand.) From there, the Latin word produced two English children, “edge” and “eager.” If you are eager about something, you like it keenly. “Keen” is an Old English word meaning “sharp” – “the keen edge of a knife” — just like Latin acer.

So, in its long history, “eager” was never a verb, only an adjective or a noun. It would make a very good verb, though.

Maybe we can start an Eager Movement.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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2 thoughts on “Burning questions about teaching English in China #8: You can never back home again

  1. Reply Marc Aug 8,2018 5:12 am

    But of course you *can* use “back” to mean to pilot in reverse — “I backed the car into the garage” so “I back home” *is* technically a correct sentence — if you drive home in reverse the whole way. Perhaps it would be better to show them that case and what it means, as it is humorous and would perhaps stick in the mind.

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