Language pet peeve #2: ‘… years back’

Recently I’ve been noticing a lot of use of back instead of ago when referring to a point in the past.

For me it’s always been ‘a few days ago’, not ‘a few days back’. Yet, the curse of ‘a few periods back’ keeps on spreading. It’s been appearing more frequently on the Indian sites I follow. It also keeps popping up on some of the American sites I follow.

Every time I read back in that context, I get a small knock on my head. Then I have to reread that sentence a few times, saying ago instead of back to wipe out the bad taste, before reading on.

Could we all just stop using that ugly ‘back’ please?

Before publishing this rant, I thought I’d check if maybe I was wrong, and that popular usage is indeed ‘x years back’. (*yuck!*)

I checked two trends on Google’s trends tool to confirm:

  1. ‘years ago’ vs ‘years back’, and
  2. ‘days ago’ vs ‘days back’

Here’s some results in charts:

Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.49.38

… years ago’ is overwhelmingly the more commonly used phrase worldwide. I am correct.


Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.49.50

India was the country with the highest usage of ‘… years back’. Maybe it was something about ‘Indian English’ that we used this phrase.

Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.51.10

Though even in India, ‘… years ago’ is the more common form of usage. It’s not as dominant as worldwide, but is the primary usage. So it isn’t the ‘Indian English’ to blame.

Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.49.10

This chart explained the issue a lot more. The wrong phrasing is most used in the Deccan states south of the Vindhyas. This raises two further questions about why these states use the wrong phrase.

  1. Is it incorrectly taught in schools? Or,
  2. Is there something in the native ‘Dravidian’ languages of these states so that when thinking in (or translating to) English, they choose to use ‘back’ instead of ‘ago’?

I will be much happier if it was the second: nuances of distinct language families influencing their local English is fun :)

The chart above also explained why I’d been seeing the wrong phrasing a lot more. I’ve recently started following a couple of new sites from people in these regions. And another blogger I follow, from Karnataka, has became a lot more active recently. I must have been seeing the phrase more often from these sources.

Just for reference, here are the similar charts for ‘… days ago’ vs ‘… days back’:

Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.47.19
Worldwide usage of ‘days ago’ in blue and ‘days back’ in red
Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.47.49
Usage of both phrases in India—much closer though ‘days ago’ is still leading
Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.48.05
The South Indian ‘Dravidian‘ states top the usage charts for ‘days back
Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 09.48.29
The North Indian states top the usage charts for ‘days ago

This final chart may also explain why the wrong phrase sticks out for me.

I spent first two decades of my life in Haryana, have family in Punjab, and studied briefly in West Bengal. No wonder I’m very ‘… days ago’ oriented :)

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