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When to ‘Come Back’ and When to ‘Go Back’

Ask a Teacher
Ask a Teacher
When to ‘Come Back’ and When to ‘Go Back’
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This week we answer a question from Mohammad in Iran. He writes:


“What’s the difference between ‘come back’ and ‘go back’? Thank you.” – Mohammad, Iran


Dear Mohammad,

You are right – “come back” and “go back” are confusing. English speakers use both expressions to talk about going places. And both expressions can be commands or strong requests.

To identify the difference, the most important thing to consider is where you are and where the person you are talking to is.

For example, let us say you are having a party at your house. Early in the night, your friends say they are leaving, but they promise to return.

In that situation, you could ask your friends: “When will you come back?” In other words, you are asking them when they plan to return to where you are in that moment. They might answer, “We will come back at ten,” or, “We will come back as soon as we can.”

Now, here is another example. Let us say you are on vacation in a foreign country. You tell an employee at the hotel where you are staying that you want to see everything but do not have much time. She asks, “When will you go back?” She wants to know when you plan to return to the place you came from – in this case, your home country. You might answer, “I have to go back on Tuesday,” or, “I have to go back in three days.”

But if you see her again on your way out to dinner, you might say, “I will come back before midnight.” In that case, you will return to the place you both are in that moment – the hotel.

All of those situations are friendly or neutral. But “come back” can also be a command when you want someone to return immediately to where you are. For example, if a person steals your property and runs away, you might shout: “Come back here!”

“Go back” becomes a command when you want someone to return to the place they were before. For example, let us say one of the people at your party borrows your car to get more food. But later, when he returns to your house, he tells you he left your car at the grocery store. So you tell them: “Go back and get it!”

And that’s Ask a Teacher!

I’m ­Pete Musto.

Pete Musto wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. We want to hear from you. Do you have a question for the teacher? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

confusingadj. difficult to understand

grocery storen. a store that sells food and household supplies