A Word, Please: Hark to this lesson on a familiar phrasal verb

A 1998 edition of the Webster's New World Dictionary.
A 1998 edition of the Webster’s New World Dictionary.
(Los Angeles Times)
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I have a friend who uses “hark back” a lot in conversation. She harks back to past news events. She harks back to old times. She harks back to something I told her last month or last year.

My first reaction is to get annoyed with her. “It should be hearken back,” I think, “or wait, should it be just hearken?” Then I start wondering about spellings. Should the first syllable have an e: “hearken”? Or is the shorter “harken” correct?

In the end, I wind up annoyed with myself for being so quick to judge my friend when I, myself, don’t know the answer.


Most people use “hark back,” “hearken back” and “harken back” to mean “recall” or “refer back to” some previous event. But the original meaning of “hark,” “harken” and “hearken” was not to recall but to hear or to listen carefully. Think: “Hark! The herald angels sing.” In fact, you can still use them that way today: Hark my words. Hearken my words. Harken my words.

“Hark” is the youngest of the three, dating back to the 14th century, with “hearken” and “harken” going back another two centuries or so.

“Hark” became a hunting call. And it was often used with “away,” “on,” “forward” or “back.” My source, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, doesn’t give examples. But it’s not hard to imagine some hunter in the 1300s whispering, “Hark forward!” to alert his companions to a rustling in the bushes.

“Harken” is older than “hearken,” which began as just a variant spelling. But “hearken” quickly became standard, and it still dominates today. In fact, if you type “harken” into Merriam’s online dictionary, you’re redirected to “hearken,” where you see “harken” listed as a variant spelling — a clear indication that Merriam’s considers “hearken” the most standard.

The idea that “such as” is the only way to introduce examples is a common misconception, but even using “like,” which is more conversational, can be a disservice to readers.

June 18, 2024

Sometime in the 1800s, people started adding “back” to “hark” for the purpose of giving it what was then a figurative meaning: to recall or refer back to. Soon, “hark back,” “hearken back” and “harken back” would become full-fledged phrasal verbs — word combinations that have a different meaning than the root verb they’re based on. For more examples of phrasal verbs, think about the difference between “give” and “give up”; “break” and “break in”; “cut” and “cut off.” In every case, the word combo means something different from the verb when it stands alone. That’s what makes them phrasal verbs.

So unlike “hark,” “hearken” and “harken,” which mean to listen or listen carefully, “hark back,” “hearken back” and “harken back” are phrasal verbs meaning “to go back to or recall to mind something in the past,” according to Merriam’s dictionary.

Merriam’s usage guide claims that, though “hark” is now rare in the meaning of to listen, “harken” and “hearken” are still used that way. Personally, outside of one old Christmas song, I’ve never heard any form of hark or hearken used to mean “listen.” But when I search a books database to compare “hearken” with “hearken back,” “harken with harken back,” and “hark” with “hark back,” I see that all three words often stand alone and “back”-less. They’re all correct, with or without “back.”

So which is the most widely accepted in edited published writing? It’s “hark back” — my friend’s preference. My preference, “hearken back,” which the dictionary prefers, comes in last place in terms of popularity, and it has for most of the last century.

So, harking back, my friend was right. Good thing I didn’t try to correct her.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at