Phrasal Verbs with "Back"
For many students, one of the most difficult parts of learning English is studying phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a verb that is combined with an adverb or preposition. The combination creates a new meaning, often one that is not related to the definition of the base verb and is difficult to guess.
The definitions of many phrasal verbs need to be memorized. There are hundreds of phrasal verbs in English, and this can be overwhelming for students. However, you will be pleased to know that there are often patterns in how phrasal verbs are formed. Here, we're going to look at phrasal verbs that include the preposition "back."
"Back" often corresponds to one of the four meanings described below. Not all phrasal verbs with "back" fall into these categories, but there are many verbs that do.
Let's take a look at some examples.
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"Back" meaning to return
One meaning of "back" is to return something to a place or to return to an earlier time. Common phrasal verbs where "back" means return are the following:
- Go back – to return to the place where you were before, or to return to an earlier point in a conversation (common in meetings)
- Come back – to return the place where you are now
- Hurry back – to return somewhere quickly
- Run back – to return somewhere by running
- Give back – to return something that you have borrowed
- Pay back – to return money that you have borrowed
- Call back or ring back – to call someone who called you before (usually if you have missed their call)
- Write back – to respond to a message
- Email back – to respond to an email
- Message back – to respond to a message (usually a text message or Whatsapp message)
Note: Many students are not sure of the difference between go back and come back. To decide which one to use, you need to think about your location. Go back means "return to a different place" (as in, NOT here). Come back means "return to this place" (as in, here). Compare these examples.
- Man 1: "I love being on vacation. Let's come back here some day." (The man wants to return to the same place.)
- Man 2: "I like being on vacation, but I miss home. I'm looking forward to going back." (The man is in the hotel, but he wants to return home.)
Now let's look at examples of the other verbs.
- Now that we've spoken everything else, let's go back to discussing finances.
(Let's return to our earlier conversation about finances.)
- I forgot my wallet. I have to hurry back to the restaurant to get it.
(I have return to the restaurant quickly because I forgot my wallet.)
- Victor ran back to the house because he forgot to lock the door.
(After leaving, Victor ran home because he forgot to lock the door.)
- When are you going to give back my purple sweater?
(When will you return my purple sweater?)
- I'm sorry I haven't paid back the money I owe you.
(I'm sorry I haven't returned your money.)
- Lucy called you before. Have you called her back yet?
(Have you returned Lucy's call?)
- I always forget to write back to my emails.
(I always forget to respond to my emails.)
- Why didn't you email me back?
(Why didn't you write to me after I emailed you?)
"Back" meaning the opposite of front
Another meaning of "back" is to communicate the idea of the opposite of front. This definition is very logical, as "back" is normally a preposition that means exactly that. Common phrasal verbs with this meaning are:
- Look back – to look behind you, either in time or physically
- Stand back–to stand further away from something (usually given as an order when something dangerous is happening)
- Step back or take a step back – to move backwards a little bit
- Fall back – to fall backwards
- Drop back – to intentionally move slower than other people in a group because you want to be behind them
- Look back! There's a man wearing a funny hat. (Look behind you! Someone has a funny hat.)
- When I look back on my childhood, I feel nostalgic. (When I think about the past, I feel emotional.)
- Stand back! There's a fire! (Move backwards! There's a fire!)
- We should take a step back. This is a very busy road. (We should move backwards because there are a lot of cars.)
- Be careful. If you fall back, you'll hurt yourself. (If you fall, you'll get hurt.)
- Peter dropped back because he wanted to talk to me in private. (Peter walked slower than the other people in the group because he wanted to talk to me.)
"Back" meaning to prevent
Another use of "back"is to express the idea of to prevent. Common phrasal verbs where "back" means prevent are:
- Hold back – to stop someone from going somewhere
- Keep back – to keep people in their place
- Set back–to stop something from progressing
- Cut back – to reduce a program or use of something (often used to describe money spent on a project)
- Choke back – to stop yourself from crying
- I wanted to talk to you, but my nervousness held me back. (Being nervous stopped me from talking to you, until now!)
- The police kept back the crowd using barricades. (The police kept the crowd in their place.)
- I finished my project late. I was set back by a terrible cold. (Getting sick stopped me from finishing my project on time.)
- The program is much smaller this year. The government cut it back because it was expensive to operate.(The government decided to spend less money on the program.)
- I choked back my tears, because I didn't want to cry. (I stopped myself from crying.)
"Back" meaning to speak rudely
Finally, there are a few phrasal verbs where "back" means to speak rudely. These verbs are quite similar:
- Answer back – to answer a question in a rude way, usually because you are angry or don't respect someone
- Talk back or speak back – to respond to someone rudely, also because you are angry or don't have respect for them
- When my sister and I answer back, our parents get angry. (My parents get angry when my sister and I speak to them rudely.)
- You should never talk back to a teacher. (You should never speak rudely to a teacher.)
Answer the following 10 questions and then check your answers. Each question is worth 10 points.
- Which verb means “to return a call'?
- Speak back
- Ring back
- Talk back
- Pay back
- Which verb means “to think about the past”?
- Drop back
- Come back
- Go back
- Pay back
- In which sentence does “back” mean “not front”?
- I was upset, but I tried to choke back my tears.
- Why don't you ever email me back?
- Ladies and gentlemen, please stand back.
- I never talk back, even when I'm angry.
- In which sentence does “back” mean “to prevent”?
- My boss held me back because he wanted to talk to me.
- When are you going to come back? I miss you!
- I'm sorry I haven't paid you back.
- I'll be right back. I just have to hurry back to the house.
- This belongs to Betsy. I have to _________.
- drop it back.
- hurry it back.
- give it back.
- choke it back.
- Owen sent me a letter, but I haven't _________.
- gone back.
- written back.
- looked back.
- spoken back.
- The library is going to close, because the government has _________ funding.
- Given back
- Stepped back
- Kept back
- Cut back
- Carlos was at the front, but then he _________ to speak to me.
- Dropped back
- Set back
- Held back
- Fell back
- I like it here. Let's _________ on Saturday.
- Stand back
- Come back
- Go back
- Run back
- _________! The police need to get through!
- Give back
- Fall back
- Stand back
- Run back
Part 1: 1. B | 2. D | 3. C | 4. A
Part 2: 1. C | 2. B | 3. D | 4. A | 5. B | 6. C
Be sure to check out our other phrasal verb resources here:
English Phrasal Verbs
Separable and Inseparable Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal Verbs Worksheet