Just in time for the beginning of the school year, linguist Neal Whitman investigates how "back to school" got transformed from a prepositional phrase to a noun phrase.

It's time for back to school! With Labor Day just around the corner, back to school is days away for many students across the nation, and for many others it has already come.

Do those statements make you cringe? That's to be expected, of course, if you're a kid who's not ready to say goodbye to summer break. Messages like "Get ready for back-to-school!" are even more bothersome when they come even before the end of July. For grammar watchers, however, they carry an extra measure of irritation. As one Tweeter who visited my blog asked, "Since **** when did 'back to school' become a noun? Can any linguists explain how that happened?"

Before we tackle those questions, how do we know "back to school" really is being used as a noun? As a rule, subjects of sentences and objects of prepositions are nouns. (Noun phrases, actually, but for our purposes, "noun" will do.) "Back to school" is the subject of "Back to school is just days away," and the object of "for" in "It's almost time for back to school." So in sentences like these it's pretty clear that "back to school" is being used as a noun. Furthermore, the usage is easy to find. A check of Google News for 2009 yields many hits like these:

  • Churches give city kids free stuff for back-to-school
  • How to help with back to school
  • Back to school is an exciting time.
  • Get Smart About Swine Flu for Back-to-School
  • Enjoy the last few weeks before back to school

Usually, "back to school" is a prepositional phrase. More specifically, "to school" is a prepositional phrase, modified by "back," and the entire phrase "back to school" is a bigger prepositional phrase (in the same way that "hard to read" is an adjective phrase, and "very hard to read" is a bigger adjective phrase). Prepositional phrases can serve as adverbs to modify verb phrases; for example, "back to school" modifies "go" in the phrase "go back to school."

So when and how did we get from "back to school" as an adverbial prepositional phrase to "back to school" as a noun phrase? My impression was that people had started using "back to school" as a noun sometime in the 1990s. However, as a reader of Language Log, the linguistics blog run by Mark Liberman, Geoff Pullum, and several other linguists, I have learned to beware of what they have dubbed the Recency Illusion: the assumption that a language innovation is new if it's new to you.

In fact, the earliest use of nominal "back to school" that I've found (after some searching in Google Books and the Google News Archive) is in an August, 1961 headline from the LA Times: "September Means Back-to-School for Adults as Well as Children." Regarding when "back to school" gained its noun privileges, then, the answer is: No later than 1961. But how?

Until the early 20th century (based on a decade-by-decade search of Google Books), "back to school" was used exclusively as an adverbial prepositional phrase, modifying verbs such as "go," "come," "take (someone)," and "send (someone)." It began to expand its range during World War I, appearing in the collocation "back-to-school drive" — a term referring to a national movement to persuade children and teenagers who had filled the draft-depleted labor force to return to school. (Pressing an adverbial phrase such as "back to school" into service to modify a noun is no more unusual than cases where other kinds of phrases, and even entire sentences, are used in that way; for example, "his devil-may-care attitude.") The term "back-to-school drive" continued to appear for a few years following WWI, as the need for kids to go back to school became more urgent when veterans came home and wanted their old jobs back.

As compulsory education became more widespread, "back-to-school drive" faded, but resurged with back-to-school drives during World War II and Lyndon Johnson's administration. (It has even gained a newer meaning during the past decade: a group effort to collect school supplies for underprivileged children.) Back-to-school drives aside, "back to school" continued primarily as a prepositional phrase during the mid-twentieth century, but was continually called upon to modify other nouns; for example, "youth," "statistics," "advice," and of course "sales," "fashion," and "shopping."

From the use of "back to school" to modify nouns, it is a short step to arrive at "back to school" as a noun itself, by way of a linguistic process known as analogy. If we start off with a noun, it's no big deal for it to modify another noun. This happens any time we make a compound word whose first element is a noun: "spiral notebook," "chemistry lab," "hall pass," "metal detector." (I won't get into whether nouns used this way count as adjectives. That's another story.) But what happens if the modifier use comes first, as happened with compounds like "back-to-school shopping" (first attested in 1945)? By analogy with other compound words, "back-to-school" comes to be seen as another noun. If "spiral" in "spiral notebook" is a noun, and "chemistry" in "chemistry lab" is a noun, and "hall" in "hall pass" is a noun, ... then "back-to-school" in "back-to-school shopping" must be a noun, too.

Linguists have a word for this use of analogy to produce a kind of reverse derivation of a word: back-formation. A classic example is the verb "edit." You'd think the noun "editor" was derived from the verb "edit" by adding a suffix, but in fact, it happened in the opposite order. The noun "editor" came first, with the earliest citation from 1649. The "-or" was interpreted as a suffix by analogy with agentive nouns such as "runner," "flyer," "swimmer," etc.; it was stripped off to produce the verb "edit," first attested in 1791. A more modern example is the innovative verb "liaise" (dating back to 1928), formed by stripping off what speakers perceive to be some kind of suffix from the noun "liaison" (which dates back to the early 1800s). In the case of "back to school," it wasn't the removal of a suffix that produced the new use, but the disassembling of a compound word.

How appropriate: "back to school" via back-formation. That doesn't help with the annoyance of hearing it on July 5, but it's a fun fact.