I have checked the learner's dictionaries of Cambridge, Longman and Macmillan but never found the sense of movement in the definition of the phrasal verb "back out". I was pretty sure that I heard it used that way in some TV series or anime but I cannot remember. However, not until I checked The Dictionary website did I realize I was right about it.

back out - Move or retreat backwards without turning; same as back away , def. 1.

I would like to know whether:

  1. it is the same as the verb back up as in "I need everyone to back up about 10 paces"
  2. this sense is out dated or not, and what kinds of situations I could use it if I wanted to. Two usage examples are good, one will do just fine.

It can be used to mean either 'reversing a vehicle' - eg reversing out of a driveway. Similar to back up but with the extra detail of being 'in' something (a garage, street, parking space etc)

But more commonly it refers to reverting a decision, pulling out of a market or offer, contract etc. eg

After years of losses, SuperCorp supermarket chain decided to back out of their contract with LocalMilk farms


There's nothing remotely "dated" about either back up or back out.

The difference in usage is mainly that you can back up without reference to anything else (it essentially just means move backwards). But back out requires either an explicitly-stated or contextually implied "place" that you were in (and can thus move out of).

There's also back away, which falls somewhere between the above. There has to be an implicit or explicit thing/place you're moving away from. Here's an example that might clarify the exact difference.

1: (Drill sergeant standing in front of soldiers on the parade ground, who are facing the sergeant)

a: ?"Platoon! Back out!" (not credible; the men aren't in anything, so they can't follow the order)
b: "Platoon! Back up!" (the men move back one or more steps, away from the sergeant)
c: "Platoon! Back away!" (again, the men move back one or more steps, away from the sergeant)

2: (Drill sergeant standing behind the soldiers, who are facing away from him)

a: ?"Platoon! Back out!" (again, not credible)
b: "Platoon! Back up!" (the men move back one or more steps, towards from the sergeant)
c: "Platoon! Back away!" (the men move forward one or more steps, away from the sergeant)

Note that I'm assuming there's nothing else on the parade ground that could serve as a "reference point". The reason for the difference between 1c and 2c is that back away requires a reference point (that you can move away from), so if there's nothing else around, that can only be the sergeant. But back up doesn't need an "external" reference point (wherever you are right now will do fine if there's nothing else around).

  • I would argue that 2c is not credible as a command giving, or expected to give, the indicated result; any form of back, whether away or out or up, requires you to move away from the direction that you are facing, not away from the direction that your reference point is facing. If he's behind them and he wants them to move away from him, he'll say "Platoon! Forward!" – Hellion Oct 27 '14 at 19:47
  • @Hellion: I don't want to get bogged down in the matter of what our hypothetical drill sergeant would be more likely to actually say in context 2c (assuming he wants the men to move away from where he himself is located). I'm stretching a point to show what obedient soldiers would do if he did give the order as specified. If you don't agree with my substantive point (back up can be relative to the subject's current position/orientation, back away requires an "external" reference point), that's another matter. – FumbleFingers Oct 28 '14 at 13:08
  • I believe my intent was to argue with your substantive point: if someone tells you to "back up" or "back away", they do not expect or intend for you to move in the direction that you are already facing, even if it is "away" from them. If I am behind you and I say "back away", I expect that you will move closer to me, because I must be referring to some (possibly imaginary) object in front of you; saying "Back away from me" when you're not facing me is a contradictory statement. – Hellion Oct 28 '14 at 14:08
  • @Hellion: Well, you yourself say back away implies I must be referring to some (possibly imaginary) object. And I only introduced that version in the first place in order to make the point that back up doesn't require any such reference (it may just be relative to the current orientation of the subject), but back out is like back away, in that it does. – FumbleFingers Oct 28 '14 at 14:38
  • I suppose then that my point is that if you say "back away", the implied reference point cannot already be behind the object of the command. What obedient soldiers would do if he did give the command as specified would be to move backward, toward the sergeant and away from whatever he apparently thinks is in front of them. – Hellion Oct 28 '14 at 15:35

When used for literal movement, back out is more specific than back up or back away because it involves movement out of some confined space (such as a room or garage).

You are correct that the motion itself is the same when you are backing up, backing away, or backing out; you remain facing some reference point while you move away from it. The prepositional uses, however, are quite different:

  • when you back up, you don't need any preposition, but you may give a distance (as in your example, "about 10 paces").
  • when you back away, you generally use from to indicate the reference point that you remain facing while you move away from it: "he backed away from the door"
  • when you back out, you generally use of to indicate the confined space that you are leaving; the reference point is inferred from context: "I backed my car out of the garage", "I kept my eyes and my gun on the evil mastermind as I slowly backed out of the room."

It may be worth noting that you can also back into something (often while you are backing out of something else!): "While I was backing out of the parking spot, I backed into a stop sign."

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