“Revert”: Singapore and Neighboring Countries Appear to be Changing the English Language According to the NYT 1

It turns out that unbeknownst to most dictionaries, revert has been leading another life in several varieties of world English, notably the kind spoken on the Indian subcontinent. The usage has finally garnered the attention of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which amended the definition of revert for its newly published eighth edition to include the meaning “to reply.” Marked in the OALD as “Indian English,” the use of the word is exemplified by the sentences: “Excellent openings – kindly revert with your updated CV,” and “We request you to kindly revert back if you have any further requirements.”

(Sticklers who are not already up in arms about this change in meaning will surely bristle at the redundancy of the second sentence: why revert back when you can simply revert? The same criticism can be leveled at reply back, with the superfluous addition of back resulting in “pleonasm,” or the use of more words than is strictly necessary.)

As Alison Waters, a lexicographer at Oxford University Press, told The Indian Express, revert in the sense of “reply” is one of eight contributions from Indian English included in the latest batch of OALD additions. It has spread beyond India, however, cropping up in the English of Singapore, MalaysiaHong Kong and elsewhere. In these countries, the usage has occasionally been deemed improper by language authorities. Singapore’s Speak Good English Movement, for example, labels it “a mistake” that should be avoided in official correspondence.

Given the established use of revert in several Anglophone countries, often appearing in formal letter writing, it would be unfair to treat the “reply” meaning as simply erroneous. Paul Brians, an emeritus professor of English at Washington State University, previously catalogued revert in his online compendium of “Common Errors in English Usage.” Alerted to its prevalence in South Asia, Brians recently revised the entry, while still recommending that “it is best to stick with ‘reply’ when dealing with non-South Asian correspondents.” This is sound advice for now, but if Geyser’s son and his friends are any indication, revert may be in the midst of a global shift from which there is no turning back.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week. Send your queries to onlanguage@nytimes.com.

@grammargirl brought this to my attention. Thank you!

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