Taken Aback

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A reader encountering the expression “taken aback” looked it up in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, where he found this example of usage:

“I was a little taken aback at the directness of the question.”

However, he also found “taken aback by” and “taken aback that” in other printed sources. He wants to know what rule, if any, determines what word should follow the expression.

“Taken aback” is used as an adjective meaning “shocked, amazed, astounded.” In modern usage, it is frequently followed by an adjective complement.

Note: An adjective complement is a clause or phrase that adds to the meaning of an adjective or modifies it. The adjective complement always follows the adjective it complements and is a noun clause or a prepositional phrase.

A web search yields numerous examples of “taken aback” followed by a noun clause beginning with that:

New Jersey imam “taken aback” that his mosque was under surveillance

Which actress thinks you’re taken aback that she’s ‘easygoing but not necessarily stupid’?

I’m a little taken aback that you have reg priced a Hasbro F/X star wars lightsaber at 48.00 then put it at 50% off.

I was taken aback that this kind of diatribe could actually make [its] way to the general public.

When “taken aback” is followed by a prepositional phrase, the usual preposition used is by, although both with and at are seen.

The adverb aback has been in the language since Old English times. Two of its meanings are “in a backward direction” and “behind.” As an adverb with the figurative meaning of “in the past,” aback still occurs in regional dialect:

“Weren’t it you I saw ride that grey mare over on Wondala a couple of years aback?”(OED example: A. Agar Queensland Ringer (2008) v. 40).“

The earliest OED example of “taken aback” to mean “surprised,” “shocked,” or “disconcerted” is dated 1751. This sense arose from a sailing term:

taken aback: (transitive verb in the passive) Of a sail: to be suddenly pressed back against the mast, preventing forward progress, either through bad steering or a change in the wind. Of a ship, etc.: to be caught in this way.

A person who is “taken aback” is momentarily “thrown off course” by some event or remark.

Of the 18 examples offered in the OED for both the literal and figurative use of the expression, only four are followed by a prepositional phrase, two of which are governed by with and two of which begin with by. Other dictionaries offer usage examples with the preposition at, but a search on the Google Ngram Viewer suggests that by is by far the most common choice.

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1 thought on “Taken Aback”

  1. “By way of being very knowing, and humouring him to the top of his bent, I went to the window, which commanded a beautiful prospect, and remarked, with an address upon which I greatly plumed myself:
    ‘What a delicious country you have about these lodgings of yours!’

    ‘Poh!’ said he, moving his fingers carelessly over the notes of his instrument: ‘WELL ENOUGH FOR SUCH AN INSTITUTION AS THIS!’

    I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life.

    ‘I come here just for a whim,’ he said coolly. ‘That’s all.’

    ‘Oh! That’s all!’ said I.

    ‘Yes. That’s all. The Doctor’s a smart man. He quite enters into it. It’s a joke of mine. I like it for a time. You needn’t mention it, but I think I shall go out next Tuesday!’

    I assured him that I would consider our interview perfectly confidential; and rejoined the Doctor. As we were passing through a gallery on our way out, a well-dressed lady, of quiet and composed manners, came up, and proffering a slip of paper and a pen, begged that I would oblige her with an autograph, I complied, and we parted.”

    -Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842)

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