Are you confused by go back vs come back? In this English lesson, I will teach you the difference between these two confusing phrasal verbs. Learn the meanings and practise in example sentences.

Students are often confused by the phrasal verbs ‘go back’ and ‘come back’. This is because they have closely related uses. Learn the difference to remove this common mistake from your English.

Watch the lesson video for a summary of ‘go back’ vs ‘come back’.

Meaning of ‘come back’

The phrasal verb ‘come back’ is used when you are briefly leaving a place, but intend to return later.

For example, imagine a situation where you are enjoying the company of friends, but have to leave urgently to attend to an important business matter. You can say to your friends: ‘Sorry, I have to go now. I’ll come back later when I’ve sorted my errand’.

Examples sentences with ‘come back’:

  • I’ll come back as soon as possible
  • I don’t know when I’ll come back.
  • Come back here!

Native speakers always prefer to use the phrasal verb ‘come back’ rather than ‘return’ when talking to friends. The reason is because ‘come back’ has an informal register, whereas ‘return’ has a formal register.


Meaning of ‘go back’

We will now learn specific situations where the phrasal verb ‘go back’ can be used correctly, every time.

Firstly, we use ‘go back’ when we are talking about returning from holiday.

  • Person A: ‘When do you go back [from holiday]’ → Person B: ‘I go back next week’.
  • Person A:‘When do you return [from holiday]’ → Person B: ‘I return next week’. *too formal
  • I go back to school next week. (*It’s the end of the Christmas holidays).
  • Sarah goes back to work tomorrow. (*It’s the end of her maternity leave).

When ‘go back’ is used in the imperative form, the meaning can be strong. It is used in emergency situations or as a forceful way of telling somebody they are not welcome:

  • Policeman: ‘Go back! Go back!’ (*The area isn’t safe and you are being commanded to move).
  • ‘Go back home. We don’t want you here!’ (*Something a xenophobe might say).

Go back vs come back

The difference between these two phrasal verbs is confusing. However, we can remember the difference by making the following association in our minds, as shown in the mnemonic image:

confusing phrasal verbs: go back vs come back
mnemonic for go back vs come back

Extend Your Learning

▶︎ Watch another lesson on confusing words: ,use, used to, usually.

▶︎ A handy list of imperative phrasal verbs and their meanings via EngVid.

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Author

Jade Joddle grows your confidence and skill to shine when speaking English.

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