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Is It Correct to Say Taken Aback: Grammar, Meaning, and Proper Usage

“Taken aback” is a well-known phrase you will hear quite often in the English language. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself, “Is it correct to say, ‘taken aback’?” Also, have you ever considered what it actually means and where it originally came from?

It is correct to say “taken aback.” We use the phrase “taken aback” to describe someone who is surprised or startled. The phrase “taken aback,” using the adverb “aback,” originated as a nautical term to describe a sudden change in wind direction, but is now used to express surprise over an event.

Now that we’ve established that it is correct to use the phrase “taken aback,” this article will answer all of your questions, including, “How do you properly use the phrase ‘taken aback’?”

When using “taken aback,” make sure you don’t confuse it with “taken back” or “take aback.” They all sound similar and might even mean the same thing in a different tense. For example, “taken aback” is the past participle of “take aback.” Keep reading to learn more. 

Taken Aback Meaning

“Taken aback” is a phrasal verb that means that something took the subject by surprise or startled them to the point of stopping them in their tracks. You could also use it to describe making a big impression on someone with something surprising (source).

Phrasal Verbs

A phrasal verb contains a combination of two or three words from different grammatical categories, such as a verb and a particle — which is usually an adverb or preposition — to form a single phrase. All the words in a phrasal verb have separate meanings when they are on their own (source).

For example, “taken aback” means being surprised or startled, but “taken” on its own means to acquire or have gotten something.

Some examples of common phrasal verbs are: 

  • Pay back
  • Put on
  • Take off
  • Clean up 

In the first example, “pay back” could mean to pay back a loan, or it could mean to get revenge on someone. Separately, “pay” means to make a due return for services rendered — to pay wages or a bill. 

It could also mean to retaliate, as in to make someone pay for what they did. The word “back” has multiple meanings on its own — as an obvious example, your back is a body part. However, it also means “to,” “toward,” or “at the rear,” as in “The teenagers like sitting at the back of the bus.”

Phrasal verbs come in four categories: transitive and intransitive, as well as separable and inseparable

Transitive and Intransitive Phrasal Verbs 

Transitive phrasal verbs need a direct object to complete their meaning, whereas intransitive phrasal verbs don’t have an object at all. Still, some can be transitive in one sentence and intransitive in another. When they do take an object, the object answers the questions of whom or what. 

Here are some examples of transitive phrasal verbs: 

  • Calls for
  • Fix up
  • Hold back

You cannot use an object after an intransitive verb. Some examples include: 

  • Break down
  • Throw up
  • Wake up

The phrase “take off” is an example of both a transitive and intransitive phrasal verb. Sometimes the meaning of the phrase changes depending on how you use it in a sentence. 

For example, “take off” as a transitive verb means to remove something.

  • He will take off his clothes when he gets home. 

When we use it as an intransitive phrasal verb, it means to leave the ground and fly away. 

  • The plane will take off in a few minutes. 
Image by Daniel Eledut via Unsplash

“Taken aback” is transitive because you are “taken aback” by something. 

Separable & Inseparable Phrasal Verbs

You can separate some phrasal verbs by inserting the object between them, while you cannot do this with inseparable phrasal verbs. For example, phrasal verbs containing adverbs are mostly separable. For separable phrasal verbs, the particle can go before or after the objects. 

Some examples of separable phrasal verbs are: 

  • Put up 
  • Paid back
  • Give back

These phrases can be together or separated in a sentence. For example: 

  • The teacher put up the test scores. 
  • The teacher put the test scores up. 
  • She paid back all her student loans.
  • She paid all of her student loans back. 
  • She wanted to give back to the community.
  • She wanted to give something back to the community.

In contrast, phrasal verbs containing prepositions are usually inseparable, meaning we cannot separate the two parts of the phrasal verb by inserting an object.

Some examples of inseparable verbs are: 

  • Broke into
  • Fell off 
  • Pull through

A simple test will reveal that you cannot separate these phrasal verbs using prepositions. For example, you would say, “He broke into my house.” However, you wouldn’t say, “He broke my house into.” 

Similarly, we cannot rewrite the sentence “I fell off the bed” as “I fell the bed off.” Likewise, you cannot change “The teachers found it hard to pull through the final week” to “The teachers found it hard to pull the final week through.”

When saying “taken aback,” we use it as an inseparable phrasal verb: “I was taken aback by the news.” However, using the phrase in the past tense as “took aback,” it becomes separable: “The news took me aback.” 

Proper Use of Taken Aback

To use “taken aback” in a sentence appropriately, one must show the shock and/or surprise. Also, we generally use “taken aback” in the passive voice as in to be taken aback.

Some “taken aback” examples include: 

  • I was taken aback by his cancer diagnosis. 
  • She was taken aback by his sudden change in attitude. 
  • I was taken aback by her generosity. 

Taken Aback vs. Taken Back

Sometimes, individuals might confuse  “taken aback” with “taken back.” What is the difference? Do they mean the same thing? There is only one letter that separates the two phrases, so how much can one letter change a whole phrase? 

Despite This subtle spelling difference, these two phrases have completely different meanings. You already know that “taken aback” means someone is taken by surprise or startled, but what does “taken back” mean? 

“Taken back” is about recovering something or being brought back to the past. Taken back is the past participle form of the phrase “take back,” which could also mean to reject or go back on something you previously committed to (source).

Here are a few examples using the past tense “take” and past participle “taken” with “back”:

  • I take back what I said about you earlier. 
  • She wants to take back the book she gave you yesterday. 
  • I ended the engagement, but he hasn’t taken back the ring. 

Taken Aback or Take Aback?

We use a past participle to express a completed action. For example, “Taken aback” is the past participle form of “take aback.” The form “taken” is the past participle of “take,” while the past tense form of “take” is “took.”

  • He was taken aback when she told him the news. 

We can also use the past tense form “took,” only this time as a separable phrasal verb, together with “aback,” to mean the same thing as “taken aback.” 

  • It took us all aback to learn that Jane was moving to Japan. 

For more information on verb tenses, you can take a look at this article for reference: “Past Tense of Run: Understanding Regular and Irregular Verb Tenses.”

Now that you know the difference between “taken aback,” “taken back,” and “take back,” you should be able to use them all correctly in a sentence. 

Synonyms for “Taken Aback”

We have learned what “taken aback” means, but what about synonyms for it? A synonym is a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language. 

For example, “afraid,” “scared,” and “frightened” all mean the same thing. “Big,” “large,” and “huge” also mean the same thing and are synonyms for one another. 

Some synonyms for “taken aback” include: 

  • Amazed
  • Stunned
  • Flabbergasted
  • Caught off guard

Now that we know some words or phrases that mean the same thing as “taken aback,” what about words that mean the opposite?

Antonyms for Taken Aback

Knowing some synonyms for “taken aback” will surely come in handy, but out of curiosity, let’s consider words or phrases that mean something completely different. We call these words and phrases antonyms. 

Some antonyms for “taken aback” include: 

  • Composed 
  • Understanding 
  • Unaffected

Like “taken aback,” a phrasal verb that happens to be of opposite meaning is “at ease,” which means free of worry or relaxed.

This particular phrase “at ease” happens to be an idiom. But what exactly is an idiom, and is “taken aback” an idiom as well? 

Exploring Idioms

Since “taken aback” is a phrasal verb, it is also an idiom as phrasal verbs function idiomatically. An idiom is a collection of words in a certain order that expresses a distinct collective meaning. The words we form them from all have meanings different from the meaning of the words put together in the phrase (source).

Idioms are popular sayings or expressions with a figurative meaning, different from the phrase’s literal meaning. 

For example, when you say, I’m feeling a bit under the weather, you don’t literally mean you are standing under a storm. That particular idiom means that you are not feeling well. 

Together, “taken aback” means to be startled or surprised. Separately, the two words in the phrase mean different things, so the phrasal verb “taken aback” is also an idiom, as are all phrasal verbs.

Here are some more popular examples of idioms and what they mean: 

  • Speak of the devil → The person you were just talking about shows up. 
  • It’s raining cats and dogs → Something we say when it’s raining heavily. 
  • A dime a dozen → Something that is very common.
  • Break a leg → Good luck.

Let’s analyze the component words of “taken aback” and how the phrase “Taken aback” came about.

Origins of Taken Aback

white and gray galleon ship part during daytime
Image by Tanner Mardis via Unsplash

“Taken” is the past participle of the verb “to take.” It means to remove something, especially without permission, or to steal something. “Take” also means to move someone or something from one place to another or to accept or have. 

Some examples include: 

  • Has anything been taken?
  • All her possessions have been taken
  • Four doughnuts have been taken, so I now have two left. 
  • I lost my suitcase at the airport; it was taken to Portland by mistake. 

“Aback” emerged in Middle English around 1200, meaning “toward the rear,” out of a contraction for the Old English word for “backward,” “behind,” or “at or on the back.” We now use it mostly in the idiom “taken aback” (source).

Taken aback was originally a nautical term from the 17th century. English mariners used it for situations when a ship’s sails encountered a sudden change of wind that knocked them back against the masts, stopping them from moving forward. The sails and the ship would be “taken aback” by the sudden halt in movement.

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The figurative meaning of the phrase suggests that something is startling enough to make us halt or jump backward in shock or surprise. This more figurative version has been in use since the late 18th century. 

Final Thoughts

In this article, we explored the phrasal verb “taken aback” that came about in the 1700s as a nautical term when the sails were taken aback by a sudden gust of wind. We now use it as a term to express shock or surprise. Many terms mean something similar to or the exact same thing as “taken aback.”

You should now be able to properly use the term “taken aback” and distinguish it from similar phrases like “taken aback,” “take aback,” or “taken back.” Idioms don’t always make sense at first, but there is always some reasoning behind them. Outside of this phrase, the adverb “aback” is archaic.