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TWTS: Going forth and back on "back and forth"

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Note: This episode of That's What They Say originally aired on December 1, 2019.

We can talk about sending emails back and forth. But why does it sound odd to talk about sending them forth and back?

It may not sound right, but some would argue that "forth and back" makes more sense. So why is the order flipped?

As it turns out, "back and forth" has been around for about 400 years.

This phrase is typically used as an adverb, such as "We sent emails back and forth." Since the 1940s though, it can also be used as a noun, as in "We had a long back and forth about that."

It's true that "back and forth" is not logical. For example, saying, "I go back and forth to work" doesn't make any sense, because you "go forth" to work before you "go back" home.

However, in the 560-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are around 12 thousand examples of "back and forth." There are only three examples of "forth and back."

In contrast, in the expression "to and fro," the directionality is different. Going away, or "to," comes first. The coming back from, "fro," comes second. This expression is rarely found in reverse, "fro and to."

The truth is, "back and forth" is an idiomatic expression. In English, idiomatic expressions don't have to make sense. They just have to be there.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.