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I'm familiar with preposition 'in' in terms of using past tense. E.g. to denote that something is hapenning during the year 2000, I can say:

I joined the project in 2000

But in some authentic articles, I often come across collocation "back in XXXX", for example from here:

Since EVE Online launched back in 2003

My question is: What is the difference? Does the 'back in'-collocation have some specific connotation? Thanks.

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You would say "back in XXXX" to emphasize that it happened some time in the past. Otherwise there is no difference in meaning.

I graduated high school in 1984

I graduated high school back in 1984.

You can also say "way back in" to emphasize that it happened a (relatively) long time ago, as if it was ancient history.

I graduated high school way back in 1984.

So with regard to your example: saying "EVE Online launched back in 2003" emphasizes that the game has been around for quite a while. I expect this is relevant to some other point mentioned in the article -- for example that, as a result, the game is polished, or has an established player base, or that the developers are committed, or something similar.

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    Good answer. Just to expand a little on the last paragraph, "in 1984" tells you exactly when it happened. So adding "back" is context relative to something else. It could be just that it seems like a long time ago to you, but it could also reflect the time scale of the subject matter. For example, personal computers are a relatively recent development in "human time". If you talk about computer hardware or software, there are new generations every few years. (cont'd) – fixer1234 Apr 18 '17 at 20:18
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    So you could refer to something that is recent in the scheme of people's lifetimes, but "ancient" in the context of generations of computers. "Back" would highlight a long time ago relative to the timeframe of personal computers, even if the year is fairly recent. – fixer1234 Apr 18 '17 at 20:18
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    @fixer1234 agreed. The "back" or "way back" is entirely subjective. – Andrew Apr 18 '17 at 20:22
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    You graduated from high school way back in 1984. – Umberto P. Apr 19 '17 at 14:50
  • @UmbertoP. yes, thanks. The "from" is always implied but not always included in casual conversation. – Andrew Apr 19 '17 at 16:36
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Good answers all around. I'll add another permutation.

"Back in 2003" can give a very slight impression that you're trying to set the scene, so to speak, and help the listener remember what else was going on in 2003. "We founded this company back in 2003, before Twitter and Facebook existed!" or "I met my wife back in 1955, when the drive-in movie cost a nickel!" Those are extreme examples, but the "back in" piece encourages you to consider more of the context: what else was going on back then?

Simply using "in 2003" connotes a bit more of a timeline-like feel. "We founded this company in 2003 and we went public in 2007." That's the more formal- or legal-sounding way to say it, as topo morto described well. It feels like it's trying to communicate a fact (the company was founded on this date) rather than a feeling or contextual information (the company was founded under these external circumstances).

Gut thing, though. Using them interchangeably would be completely technically correct, as you've noted in your question.

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    +1. If one were to read, in 2017, "The company was founded in 2003", the primary piece of information that will be perceived is that the company is currently about 14 years old (but in a way that would automatically update itself to "about 15 years old" if read in 2018). Saying "back in 2003" would emphasize the context in which the company was created, rather than its current age. – supercat Apr 19 '17 at 14:58
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As well as emphasizing that it happened some time in the past, "back in 2003" has a more informal feeling to it than "in 2003". You wouldn't be so likely to see "back in 2003" in a formal business document or legal document. On the other hand, "in 2003" might sound a bit too 'calculated' for a casual conversation; adding 'back' adds information about how you feel about how far away that time was, so it comes across as friendlier. You might see something like

We started our company back in 2003

On a company's 'about' page on their website, for example.

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There is no important difference. You could use either, based only on what sounds good.

That said, "back" does subtly imply a change in context. When you say "back in 2003," you are implying that something about 2003 is different from the present day. Now, obviously each day is different from the one before, so it's never wrong to use "back in___", and obviously each day is similar to the next, so it's never mandatory either. But if you're going to describe some key difference, it often sounds better. For example, "EVE launched back in 2003, when the idea of a space MMO was fresh and new."

There are a few other uses which work similarly, like the cliche "Meanwhile, back at the ranch." (which indicates we have switched from some cowboy's exploits to a separate scene with different characters).

A very similar usage of "back" instead refers to the audience's focus returning to something from earlier in the presentation. You hear this used often on reality shows with multiple teams: "Back at the Johnsons' house, Zed has run into some problems."


Note also that "in" doesn't necessarily indicate past tense. Example: "In March of 2020, we will begin phase three of our master plan."

  • Back implies backwards i.e. such a time was worse than now. – user2617804 Apr 19 '17 at 23:32
  • @user2617804 "back when men were men, etc." – fectin - free Monica Apr 20 '17 at 1:47

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