Earlier today I came across a tweet that argued against the use of the word back in the phrase some years back. Tweeter Darlink (@NW6Rd) stated:
“While standing on the platform some years back…” No. ‘ago’ ‘some years AGO’ #grammar
I love adpositions, of which a postposition like back is a subcategory. As a closed, functional category, adpositions can be defined as “words that indicate a relation between the noun or pronoun and another word, which may be a verb, an adjective, or another noun or pronoun.” In English, both prepositions and postpositions are subcategories of the adposition. (Other languages may also have circumpositions that consist of two parts that appear on both sides of the complement.) Prepositions vastly outnumber postpositions in English, but ago is a frequently used postposition.
In the original phrase in question some years back, the word back is also a postposition.
In response to my retweet with comment, the original poster made the following two statements (tweets copy and pasted as written):
Postposition shows the relation of a noun or pronoun to other word in a sentence…
Ago is an independent postposition in English; Not Back ..
AGO – before the present; earlier (used with a measurement of time).
BACK could be an adverb, noun, verb or adjective
BACK – (adj.) from or relating to the past in context of old or previous but not time.
- I ordered a taco without jalapeños.
- I am writing a book about English grammar.
- I walked around the block.
The noun phrases jalapeños, English grammar, and the block function as the complements of the prepositions without, about, and around. The preposition precedes the complement.
All three words can also be other forms and perform multiple functions. In the phrasal verb go without, without is a p-word that functions as a particle. In the phrase in about six minutes, about is an adverb that modifies the determiner (quantifier) six. In I walked around, around is an adverb that functions as an adjunct adverbial to modify the entire sentence.
The phrase from the original tweet some years ago is a postpositional phrase. The noun phrase some years functions as the complement of the postposition ago, which functions as the postpositional phrase head. Many dictionaries erroneously identify ago as an adverb. Many dictionaries fail to separate form from function. Grammatical form is “what a word, phrase, or clause looks like.” Grammatical function is “what a word, phrase, or clause does.” The phrase some years ago can function as an adjunct adverbial, but the form is a postpositional phrase. Furthermore, the word ago requires a complement: *I left ago is grammatically impossible in English because of the lack of a complement of the word ago. Adverbs do not require complements; adpositions do. Ago is therefore not an adverb.
The word back can have many forms and even more functions. The word can be a noun as in I hurt my back, a verb as in Hulk will back Thor up, and an adverb as in Barton leaned back. In some Englishes (yes, Englishes is a word), back is also a postposition. Many dictionaries wrongly identify the forms of many words. Few identify back as a postposition. Most lack a postposition category whatsoever. Regardless, back is formally and functionally a postposition in the phrase some years back. The noun phrase some years functions as the postpositional complement. The entire postpositional phrase some years back functions as an adjunct adverbial of another clause.
The use of back as a postposition may not be “standard” (the mythical standard language is a topic for another post), but the use is possible in some Englishes. Using back as a postposition in a phrase such as some years back is therefore grammatically possible. In fact, searching Google Books, I found some published examples of back as a postposition including one from 1822:
- Monk learned days ago that Slade left the police force ten years back… (2009)
- I mentioned a few days back that I went shopping and bought a few things for myself. (2008)
- Yes, my lord; there is a young lad, my lord, called a few minutes back, and asked for your lordship. (1888)
- In this study, these responsibilities are obtained from the descriptions of good wives and good husbands ten years back and now. (2013)
- Our road was chiefly through woods, and part of it lay through the Hurricane-track, that is where a strong wind, some years back, opened a passage through the woods… (1822)
The use of back as a postposition is far from new, with use attested as far back as two centuries ago. Or two centuries back, I could say.
Preferring ago instead of back is a stylistic choice, not a grammatical one. Grammatically incorrect constructions in English include *Cat the brown chasing been spotted a dog and *I lived near New York City ago. Both some years ago and some years back are grammatically possible in English (although not in all Englishes). All languages (including all Englishes) are linguistically equal. Using back as a postposition is not wrong. Using back as a postposition is grammatically possible.