Should we cut down or cut back? Tim Bowen helps us cut out confusion.

‘Teaching unions are strongly opposed to government plans to cut back investment in education.’ If governments, authorities, organisations or businesses cut back, they reduce the amount of money they spend. Individuals and families may also need to cut back, as in ‘We’re trying to cut back on the amount we spend on food each week’. 

The same phrasal verb can also be used to mean to start doing or using less of something, especially because that something is bad for your health, as in ‘Pete smokes but he’s trying to cut back’ or ‘If you cut back on fat and sugar, you’ll definitely lose weight’. Cut down can be used with the same meaning, as in ‘To reduce the risk of heart disease, you need to cut down your alcohol intake and take more exercise’. 

The same verb can also be used to mean to make something such as a speech or a piece of writing shorter, as in ‘Can you cut down the article by about a hundred words?’ In a more literal sense, to cut down can refer to the felling of trees, as in ‘Thousands of hectares of rain forest have been cut down in recent years to make way for farming’. 

If you cut across an area of land instead of going around the edge of it, you save time, as in ‘We cut across the fields because we were late’. A short cut can also have a similar meaning, as in to find a shorter route (’Don’t take the main road, turn right. It’s a short cut.’) To cut across can also be used to mean to affect two or more different groups in the same way, as in ‘Sympathy for the victims of the conflict cuts across religious and political boundaries’.