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Remind me why we’re back here — or never mind, it’s just a ...



Remind me why we’re back here — or never mind, it’s just a revolution

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus detective novels
Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus detective novels
Image: Supplied

Those who still relish the feel of paper in their hands might have noticed that on Sunday I wrote about the conglomeration of English words that begin with “con”.

There is another pre-participle, if that’s the right word (it isn’t), that takes up dozens of dictionary phrases, and that is “re”.

On its own, “re” inhabits the subject line of a squillion emails, where it stands for “in reply to”. 

It appears almost as frequently as the abbreviation for “in reference to”. As an example: “Dear Mrs Jones. Re your complaint about my hedgehog, I have reinforced the cage it resides in, with the hopeful resolution that it no longer regurgitates the rhubarb it has rendered waste to in your garden.”

On a pedantic note, “re” should never be fully phrased as “in regards to”. 

Regards are reserved for the sign-off in emails where you send warm, kind, sincere or best regards to the recipient.

Incidentally, I have often wondered what “best regards” really means. If the person to whom the email is addressed is not someone whom you hold in high regard (another word unrelated to regarding or regards), could you possibly say “with average regards” or, in extreme cases, “with worst regards”.

Probably not. 

Getting back to “re” words, one of the most annoyingly misused phrases is “revert back”. This is total and utter tautology. To revert means to go back. There is no need to add “back” to the term.

Similarly, I have noticed the odd cropping-up of “return back”, which is equally if not more infuriatingly wrong. Like revert, return, on its own, means “go back”.

But hang on a second. If we were to take the word “return” literally, it would mean “to take another turn”. So, instead of going back, which would’ve been the first turn, it might mean turning a second time, in other words turning away from whatever lies behind and going in another direction entirely.

The same holds true for “revolution” which in popular parlance means a rebellion (a revisiting of a bellion?) against reigning authorities.

Mathematically speaking, however, a revolution is a 360-degree turn which would bring you back to the place where you began. And let’s face it, this is what happens to many revolutionary movements and governments.

As for “revisit”, this word is frequently used in the correct context, as in to relook at a topic that was looked at before but then, for whatever reasons, was cast aside. 

It is just as frequently used incorrectly, implying that matters which had previously been properly examined are now being “revisited” because solutions were initially lacking, when in actual fact there wasn’t so much as a knock on the door to start with.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has interesting things to say about the simple prefix “re”, which if you ask me needs re-examining. Apparently it entered English via legal Latin in the 1600s, meaning “in the matter of” (which we now phrase as “in reference to”) but initially came from a more ancient root meaning property, goods or wealth.

Thus we have “in medias res” — in the midst of things — as well as “reification” — the regarding of an idea as a thing — and “republic” — things and matters affecting everyone.

Another early offspring of “re” is the lovely word “rebus”, defined as “a puzzle or riddle consisting of words or phrases represented by pictures of objects whose names resemble in sound the words or phrases intended” or as “an enigmatic representation of a name, word or phrase by figures, pictures, arrangement of letters and so on, which suggest the syllables of which it is made up”.

One of my favourite detective writers, Scottish novelist Ian Rankin, called his famous protagonist Inspector Rebus because this is the perfect name for someone who solves mysteries.

Now, would someone please solve the mystery of why we revisit things that have never been visited, why we return when we haven’t yet turned, why we have revolutions that do not take us any further forward as a nation, and why we revert back (which is just plain wrong).


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