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This is from a native speaker's telling about some of the things done by the officers after his car run into a deer which suddenly ran out onto the road. The man could not stop or swerve and had to crash the deer.

"So they they walked around the car and looked at the damage and took down my information, asked me a couple of simple questions, like where did you hit the deer? How far back was the deer? that sort of thing." BritishAmerican speaker telling about his car accident (see:5:10-5:12)

The question "How far back was the deer?" caught my attention. The man ran into the deer because it was in front of the car, not the at back of the car when he saw the deer. So, you would expect a question like "How far was the deer? Or How far down the road was the deer when you saw it?

So, why did they say "How far back ......"?

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  • "How far back" means what distance was the deer from the car before it was run over. Was it two metres or ten? The nearer the animal was to the car's trajectory the more difficult it was for the driver to swerve around the animal or brake in time. Your alternatives would also work.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 9, 2023 at 5:39
  • @Mari-LouA, Thanks. I understand and am quite surprised, I thought "back" as an adverb of place always means "behind", but now I see it being used in the meaning of "distance" regardless of it referring to a distance "in the front" or "behind" something. However, I still wonder, if the deer was actually behind the car, should I specifically use "behind" as in "How far behind was the deer?" or can I still use "How far back .........? to refer to the deer's being behind?"
    – Yunus
    Dec 9, 2023 at 7:35
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    if the deer jumped onto the road behind the car it would not have got hit.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 9, 2023 at 8:18
  • @Mari-LouA, No, I mean if I simply imagine a situation where I saw a deer in the mirror of the car, which was behind the car, how would I say ask about the distance. Should I use "how far back was the deer?" or "How war behind was the deer?"
    – Yunus
    Dec 9, 2023 at 8:47
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    I can't say what the speaker intended, but the only valid interpretation I would make from his words is How far back up the road did this happen? Others may think different, but so far as I'm concerned, unless that's what the guy meant, he misspoke. I recommend you don't waste any more time on it. Dec 9, 2023 at 15:55

2 Answers 2

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The narrator in the video explains:

2.12 - But, the deer hit the car, and then, it was gone. I didn't know where it went. Immediately, I hit the brakes, and I pulled over to the side of the road.

The deer got hit, the car was still driving, and the driver stopped as soon as he could react (even if "immediately" was humanly possible, there is still the distance necessary for the car to slow down and stop). At this point, the deer (or, rather, the spot of the impact with the deer) was behind them. The question asks how far back (on the road) the collision occurred. "Back", because it is behind them on the road.
The opposite would be "how far ahead".

I'm not sure how pertinent this is, but it might be good to consider that Westerners tend to think of the past as something that lies behind them. This is especially obvious in car traffic. "Back" could carry this meaning in addition to distance.

If the policeman would have asked "How far was the deer?", it might not have been clear to what event they were referring: when the driver first saw it?

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    thanks for the good answer. As far as I understand, "back" is used in its usual sense(behind) and you emphasize that "How far back ....." refers to the point at which the car hit the deer, not the point at which driver saw the deer? Did I understand you correctly?
    – Yunus
    Dec 9, 2023 at 13:06
  • @yunus Yes. Although this is still not a 100% clear, it makes more sense in the context, coming from the police. If they wanted to know when the deer was first seen, they would have asked so more explicitly (using, for example, your alternative questions).
    – Joachim
    Dec 9, 2023 at 13:10
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EDIT: I hadn't watched the (long) video. Now I have. The police are referring to where the collision occurred relative to where the car was parked when they arrived. How far back down the road. The following answer is about how some speakers use the word "back" to mean "away from" a point of reference, and that point of reference can vary. A good place to find attestations is in court records where a witness is being asked questions about a physical scene, and the court reporter is taking down their answer verbatim.

If you're taking a photo of someone at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and you want to get it just right so that it looks as though they're holding the tower up, you might say to them

Step back a little.

And that is even though they are in front of you. Back doesn't always mean "behind". It can mean "away". Away from me. Away from it. Away from them. Away from there. Away from here. It is context-dependent.

How far away from you was the deer?

How far back (from you) was the deer?

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  • I added the "Verbally" as lagniappe but that probably confused things, since back there expresses a backwards shuffling motion, Dec 9, 2023 at 12:29
  • It's really hard for me to imagine someone deliberately using "back" to mean "ahead of my vehicle." To me, the word "back" always means rearwards from somebody's perspective. It could be the perspective of the car, or perhaps from the perspective of the deer, or, in your example, the perspective of the person being photographed, but I wouldn't say that it ever means simply "away from me." (Even in the command "Stay back!" it's implied that the listener is facing the speaker and should stay rearwards from that perspective.) Dec 9, 2023 at 20:51
  • @TannerSwett I dont follow your final sentence. You lost me with "that". Not sure what the referent is. "Stay back!" means "don't come any closer to me" or "Don't go any closer to it" -- depends on the context. Dec 9, 2023 at 22:49
  • Sorry, let me rephrase. Suppose that Alice is walking towards me, but I don't want her to come any closer to me, so I shout "Stay back!" Presumably, Alice is facing towards me, so I'm telling her to stay "back" from her own perspective, in which "back" means "away from me." If, for some reason, Alice is facing away from me and walking backwards towards me, I'd probably be more likely to shout "Stay away!" instead. That's the way that I think of things, anyway; there are other valid perspectives too. Dec 10, 2023 at 0:21
  • @TannerSwett I could say to someone "My house isn't visible from the road" and they could ask "How far back is it?" There "back" clearly doesn't mean "behind (the speaker)" or "rearwards from somebody's perspective" as you put it; rather it is a foreground/background scenario in which the road is understood to occupy the foreground. Dec 10, 2023 at 1:01

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