Revert Does Not Mean Reply In Australia

Revert has a number of meanings, most of which relate to the notion of returning to a previous state. You can't employ it to mean "reply" in a revolting phrase like "we will revert to you". It's simply not on.

Letter picture from Shutterstock

I'd never actually encountered this ghastly expression until it showed up in a message sent to my brother Alex during his stint as guest editor on our sibling site Kotaku this week:

Your email has been forwarded to the concerned department and we will revert to you shortly.

The first error in this sentence is 'concerned department'. What the sender presumably meant was 'department concerned', though it would be better to avoid any ambiguity or confusion by writing 'relevant department'.

The other problem is 'we will revert to you'. 'Revert' does not mean 'reply'. At first I thought this was simple pig ignorance, a frequent factor in poor writing. However, a little digging around suggests that this a quite common usage in US English. However, it doesn't even rate a subsidiary mention in the Macquarie Dictionary, which remains our oracle for these matters.

This is yet another example of where Australian and US English differ in what counts as correct. If Americans must use "we will revert to you", they can. But it has no place in professional communication or formal writing in Australia (and it's not a phrase you'd need to use casually).

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


Comments

    Urgh. I hate people who use revert to mean reply. Lawyers seem to be particularly guilty of this. Possibly they think it makes them sound smarter or more formal? Either way: urgh.

    I've never seen 'revert' used to mean 'reply'. In the context of 'we will revert to you' in the context I've heard people use it, 'revert' has meant 'defer'. Which is, as far as I know, equally wrong.

    So now we're stuck with only the words and meanings that are in the Macquarie Dictionary?
    It's a valid meaning in English somewhere and it's a Global world.
    Fair point on the "concerned department", but whining about the use of "revert" crosses the line into nitpicking.
    In fact, having now logged into the Macquarie Dictionary site, I can't see why definition 4 can't be bent to apply to this usage,
    ie. they will be returning the email (with a reply) to the original owner.

      Professional communication relies on sticking to the rules, for rules you need an arbiter, and for Australian English (which is my concern) the Macquarie is the clear choice. It's possible that in 300 years English will have morphed into a single variety and these distinctions won't matter, but it hasn't happened yet! And even when it has, there will still be people using words incorrectly by the standards of the time.

        How does that change happen if we refuse to allow people to use new words or new meanings for existing words in their day to day work?

          You can, write a poem.
          If you need to communicate with a certain precision, there is no room for that.

    revert means changing back into something it once was.....right? sorta?

    Like: I will revert back into the dick I used to be

      This implies you ceased being one in the first place...

    I work for one of the largest US software companies and it is never used in the context of replying to an email. In my experience this is an Indian English thing, not a US English thing. I worked for several years for a large Indian company and there were several slightly odd words or phrases used in email like this. Very common to get an email reply that read something along the lines of "Please do the needful as above and revert" and it took me quite a while to figure out what that meant.

      I second that. The incorrect usage of "revert" as described in the article is, in my experience, commonplace in email exchanges with Indian off-shore centres.

        I live in Fiji and have encountered Fijians (of native Fijian ancestry) using revert in email to mean reply. I guess it comes from the large local population of Indo-Fijians?

    It's an example of people using a word where they think it sounds right, but where they have no idea what the word means.
    Common amongst uneducated people who wish to appear educated.
    Such people don't need re-education. They need gassing.

    I agree it's a horrible expression but I encounter it a lot in my line of work (dealing with Asia) and must admit that it does a job that's not well served by Australian English.

    Alternatives to "revert" tend to be verbose and informal such as "get back to you". Though I can't bring myself to use "revert" I do wish there was a better alternative.

      Wouldn't a less informal, less verbose alternative of "revert" be "reply"?

      Since you said you deal with Asia a lot, this could be PURELY a language gap issue. They MEAN to say reply, but they say revert because they are mistaken, its an easy mistake, they look alike, they both have two syllables, they both start with the same letter.

      "I will revert to you" = "I will change from what i am, back into you"
      "I will reply to you" = "I will respond to you"

      "Reply" also tends to indicate time. Think of it like this.

      - Two men are having a conversation, and there is an arbiter in the middle. Maybe they are having a debate, or they are 'not speaking' like little kids. One man says "I think you're choice of drinks was ridiculous". Now, if they are standing in the same room, and if the second man heard it at that moment, the Arbiter turns to him and says "What is your RESPONSE?".

      Now, if the two men are having this same conversation, but they are not in the same room, imagine they are in separate rooms, and the first man hands a piece of paper to the Arbiter, he walks it into the next room and hands it to the second man and asks "What is your REPLY" -

      Reply is for something that isn't immediate, you reply to letters, txts and email, you can also respond to them, but you more often respond to people in a conversation, but reply to them in a written format.

      If you get an email, you don't say "I will respond to you shortly" (though you probably could and you'd be right) you would say "i will reply to you shortly". I don't see how 'revert' does a better job than 'reply'.

      It strikes me as either a mistake in language, or an attempt to sound more educated by using a more obscure use of a word than you need to "Oh, it means reply, didn't you know?" Then why didn't you just say reply!

      Last edited 11/01/13 3:27 pm

        The response above is well considered and I agree with most points. The idea about reply/respond denoting a degree of immediacy is particularly interesting.

        In the Asian context, "revert" seems (to me, at least) to sit somewhere in the middle. When someone "reverts" they do it with the low immediacy implied by "reply" with the more specific consideration implied by "respond".

        One point where I disagree with the above is the rush to denote regional differences in English as mistakes. In much the same way there are Australian, British and American versions of English, there are also Indian, Singaporean, Malaysian (and probably other) versions of English whose subtle differences are no more or less valid than the differences in US and British English.

    I see this more and more all the time - where possible I remind them that in the IT world Revert is just like a rollback - something you do not want to do.

    I just had to come in and post a revert to this. I fully agree it's a terrible use of the word.

    This comes off to me as some sort of way to sound smarted "Concerned Department" (why is it so concerned?) and "revert" to mean "return". However in most dictionaries i checked, revert was shown to mean 'return to prior state'. It does not mean 'take it from one place and put it in another' (Reply, in this sense, is taking your email and returning it to you as something different, a reply.)

    A couple of dictionaries specifically state this "( US ) to reply to someone: we will revert to you with pricing and other details " which is just another example of the US taking something that means one thing and just deciding that it means something else and then foisting it upon other people. Come on America.. you can't just make shit up and then expect everyone to agree!

    HOWEVER. The Dictionary also tells me this "Law. to go back to or return to the former owner or to his or her heirs." Which TECHNICALLY works (you are 'going back or returning' correspondence" But its a very shaky technicality. This is probably why lawyers use it (maybe incorrectly), and why people might be prone to using it because it sounds 'smarter'. But in the end, it just makes you look ignorant. Sometimes its better to stick with what you know than try something you don't.

    NegativeZero is correct.

    This is an idiosyncrasy of Indian English.

    They often say phrases like "please revert back to me" and "please do the the needful".

    Your brother must have encountered a person from India.

    It's used by Indian English speakers all the time, as noted above... "Kindly do the needful and revert" is often used to sign off an email where they are asking you to do something, and let them know when it is done. I used to hate it, now I love it.

    I

      No wonder I can never understand what the hell the person in the Indian call centre is trying to say.
      If the Indians want to provide call centre service to the English speaking world, they should learn to speak and write English properly.

      "Kindly do the needful and revert" is a complete load of old cobblers.

    There's nothing "incorrect" about any English usage and no one has any place thinking otherwise. There is no "properly" when it comes to English; there is no 'right' and there is no 'wrong'. Usage dictates the language, and neither dictionaries, nor article-writers, nor article-commenters, nor anyone else should bestow upon themselves ultimate authority and arbitration on the usage of any word, morphological construction or grammatical structure. This is another tired and pointless article and is not of the caliber I expect on lifehacker.

      If that's your view, I'd avoid reading Mind Your Language columns in future. That said, your claims don't hold up to scrutiny. All languages have agreed rules and meanings; if they didn't, speakers (and readers) wouldn't be able to understand each other. Yes, those rules change over time -- but that doesn't mean that certain uses aren't deemed inappropriate in specific situations or cultures.

      Could not agree more. Language is an evolving form of expression- it is by no means a mathematical rule set. By limiting your language via rules, you're actually limiting your range of expression.

      Articles like this make linguistics students go on murderous rampages.

      I am not a linguistics student. (Just in-case?)

    It's an irritating word use, but the biggest law firms in the land use it- I think it's actually in all of their style guides, because they inevitably say in their letters "we will revert to you in due course" and so forth. I regard it as a bit pretentious and American, but it's not actually wrong (and quoting the Macquarie Dictionary is eyeroll worthy).

    Revert is not used to mean reply in the American English. That was likely written by an Indian, as they are the ones I have seen employ this usage. I am not fond of it.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now