Q&A: Revert or reply?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we ponder whether to reply or revert…

Q: Hey AWC, we were going through our mailbag and found this one from Emily.

A: What was her grammar gripe?

Q: She recently came across a number of emails saying they will “revert back” when they have an answer or have completed the next step in a project. I.e. “Thanks for the brief. I'll revert back shortly.” She wants to know if this is a correct use of “revert”?

A: Great question – and we’ve seen this in emails too.

Q: Exactly. Emily thinks that surely to “revert” is to go back to the original, and not as a synonym for “reply”. Yeah?

A: Yes, there are actually a few meanings for the verb “revert” – even including one which means to convert to Islam. But the main definition is “to go back to a former condition, practice, thought, subject, or belief” in some way.

Q: Examples?

A: A criminal reverting to old habits or a clearing reverting to forest. It can also be used when describing something previously disused – “I had to revert to using a candle when the power went out”.

Q: I totally had to do that last night!

A: What? Use a candle?

Q: No silly. I had to accompany a criminal to a clearing in a forest.

A: Um. Okay.

Q: So what about Emily’s version?

A: It’s definitely a thing – meaning “to reply or get back to” – but apparently restricted to Indian English usage according to Oxford Dictionaries.

Q: Indian? That’s odd.

A: Yes. We suspect that just like an email from a Nigerian prince, it’s likely to have spread to Africa, America and beyond quite quickly.

Q: OMG – I actually GOT an email from a Nigerian prince last week! We’ve been chatting for days.

A: We would strongly suggest you revert to your pre-Nigerian-prince self.

Q: Yeah, as I was standing in that forest clearing last night, I was starting to think the same thing.

A: Right, so anyway, we’ve seen anecdotally that using “revert” to mean “reply” is one of those things popping up more and more in corporate emails.

Q: So does that make it okay?

A: It certainly does not. It might be trending, but there isn’t the critical mass using it to make it part of accepted English just yet. One thing that is DEFINITELY wrong however is saying “revert back”.

Q: Why?

A: To say “revert back” is redundant – the “back” is not required. It’s similar to saying “raise up” or “split apart” or “free gift”. These things are known as tautologies.

Q: Right. So, what’s the verdict here then?

A: Emily is right to question this usage. “Revert back” is always wrong – for the tautology reason above. And even if they email her to say they will “revert to her later”, it’s really not acceptable English.

Q: In fact, it’s kind of creepy. Aren’t they saying they’ll turn into her later on?

A: Yes, kind of.

Q: That’s just weird. No offence Emily.

A: But even if you know what they’re trying to say (a “refer/reply” corruption), it’s definitely not something we recommend using yourself.

Q: Great, thanks for this. Now, I’m off to email a prince and ask him nicely not to use those account details I sent yesterday…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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