Back away and back off are two phrasal verbs with somewhat similar meanings. Both suggest the act of – physically or figuratively – moving away from someone or something. However, they have some subtle differences that tell them apart, making them not-so-interchangeable.
But first things first, let’s look up the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary’s definitions of the two phrasal verbs.
to move backwards away from something or someone, usually because you are frightened:
- She saw that he had a gun and backed away.
to show that you do not support a plan or idea any longer and do not want to be involved with it:
- The government has backed away from plans to increase taxes.
to stop being involved in a situation, usually in order to allow other people to deal with it themselves:
- She started to criticize me, then she suddenly backed off.
- Just back off and let us do this on our own, will you?
to move backwards away from someone, usually because you are frightened:
- I saw the knife and backed off.
Comparison and Contrast
Now that you have read the definitions, you must know that both phrasal verbs have both literal and figurative meanings, that is, the retreat can be physical or figurative, such as mental or emotional. This leaves a thin thread of distinction for us to walk on, but let’s try – not back off. So here’s a detailed comparison of the two:
“Back away” means to move away from something or someone, often because of fear or caution. For example, “He backed away from the dangerous animal.” Or, “the government backed away from its plan to increase taxes as the elections neared.”
“Back off” also means to move away from something or someone, but with the added sense of giving up or surrendering. For example, “the politician backed off his statement because of the public backlash.” It can also be said as a warning or threat to someone who is getting too close or being too aggressive. For example, “The police told the protestors to back off.”
“Back away” suggests a more measured response and a sense of caution or prudence. It may imply a sense of fear or hesitation, but not necessarily a strong reaction.
“Back off” implies a more forceful response, often used to convey a sense of frustration, annoyance, or anger. It can also be used as a warning or threat to someone who is being too aggressive or pushy.
“Back away” has a more neutral or matter-of-fact tone, often used in situations where there is a need to retreat or create distance for safety reasons.
“Back off” has a more confrontational or assertive tone, often used in situations where there is a need to establish boundaries or assert authority.
“Back away” is more commonly used in situations where there is a physical threat or danger. For example, “He backed away from the edge of the cliff.”
“Back off” is more commonly used in situations where there is a need to establish boundaries or assert authority. For example, “The boss told the employee to back off and stop interfering.”