The Curious Case of Revert Back



Consider the following sentences:

“I will revert back to you by email.”
“Kindly revert back.”
“I have sent you a message. Please revert to me as early as possible.”

I come across all the above sentences, and their other similar versions, on a regular basis, mostly at my workplace, sometimes otherwise. The moment I hear the word ‘revert’ used in this manner, it rings a bell in my head. The question that comes is, is this usage correct?

English is a funny language. New words get added in the ‘official’ Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on a daily basis. The word ‘Selfie’ is one such recent and renowned phenomenon. As per the same Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘revert’ has three usages. Revert as a noun, a verb, and an adjective.

The most common usage, the usage as depicted above, and the usage which is in the scope of this discussion, is the usage of ‘revert’ as a verb.

As a verb, ‘revert’ is a combination of re – “back” and vertere – “to turn”. (The word versus also comes from vertere). As a verb, ‘revert’ goes back to 11th century AD where it was first reported to be used in the French language as revertir meaning to come to oneself again. It has been used widely over the last 9 centuries in multiple European languages like Latin (reverto), Spanish (reverter), Italian (revertere), and Portuguese (reverter). Its meaning and usage from then on has been: to return, to go back, to turn around, or to return to a former condition, state, practice, subject, or belief.

A quick search on the internet and one will find that all other major online dictionaries will give the meaning of the word ‘revert’ mainly as: to return to a former condition or state.

On a quick inspection, none of the above sentences (or many others used in common language these days) use ‘revert’ in this sense. We are essentially using the word ‘revert’ to mean: To reply. This brings us to two important questions.

1. Is using ‘revert back’ grammatically correct?
2. Is using ‘revert’ itself in this manner grammatically correct?

Let’s look at them one by one.

Using Revert Back

Since the word ‘revert’ already contains a re- prefix which inevitably means back, I don’t think adding a back again after revert makes sense. It is an unnecessary repetition which would mean: to go back back, which is pointless. Besides, we use other words with a re- prefix without a back following them. Consider these:

• Revise: I am revising the syllabus, rather than, I am revising back the syllabus
• Reuse: Please reuse a pen with a by refilling it to avoid wastage, rather than, Please reuse back a pen with a by refilling it to avoid wastage
• Repair: I am repairing my bicycle, rather than, I am repairing back my bicycle

Looking at the above cases, and many other similar cases, we can safely establish that adding back after a word which has a re- prefix is redundant.

Conclusion: revert back is grammatically incorrect.

Now let’s look at the second case.

Using Revert to mean Reply

These cases are much more common in the spoken language. The interesting thing is that spoken English varies greatly from country to country, and changes when people of different native tongues speak English. Some common examples of this trend are:

• Native Hindi speakers conversing in English: Hinglish
• Native Singaporeans conversing in English: Singlish
• Native Malaysians conversing in English: Minglish (self-made, but you get the point!)

Further, considering that India itself is the home of more than 100 languages, the possibilities are endless.

Although unclear, it is believed that this usage of the word ‘revert’ seems to have been originated in India (using the word ‘reply’ seems less glamorous for lawyers and white collared professionals). The usage then migrated to the US, Malaysia, Singapore and many other parts of the world.

Considering the fact that a majority of English speaking population (in numbers) live in these areas of the world, one New York Times article (published in 2010) stated that the Oxford dictionary has revised (not revised back!) the meaning of the word ‘revert’ to: To reply. I was unable to find any other evidence supporting this conclusion and hence can’t conclude if what they mentioned is correct or not.

Further, majority of other native English speakers – the British, the Australians, and many Americans are yet to accept this meaning of the word ‘revert’.

So what to conclude? Are we using the word ‘revert’ correctly or not?

Considering that the official Oxford English Dictionary has not accepted the usage of the word ‘revert’ to mean ‘to reply’, according to me, it is incorrect to use it with this meaning as yet.
So until the official meaning of the word changes, here are a few correct usages of the word ‘revert’:

• When ice melts, it reverts to water.
• I reverted to Hinduism five years ago.
• He reverted to his native language.
• The editor asked the journalist to revert to the previous version of the story.

Here are a few incorrect usages with their correct versions:

Incorrect: I will revert back to you by email.
Correct: I will respond to you by email.

Incorrect: Kindly revert back.
Correct: Kindly reply.

Incorrect: I have sent you a message. Please revert to me as early as possible.
Correct: I have sent you a message. Please reply as early as possible.

P.S. Using ‘reply back’ is as redundant as ‘revert back’.