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Ins and outs

English has a jumbled inheritance of words from many sources; the pie chart shows a statistical analysis based on dictionary etymologies. Even simple contrasting word pairs, such as in and out, may come from different sources: in is a Latinate word, and out is Germanic.

Despite their disparate origins, you can usually count on words that incorporate in and out to be opposites, and this pattern usually holds true as well for words that begin with in- (im- before certain consonants) and have a corresponding word beginning with ex-, a Latin preposition meaning “out.” The exceptions to the rule – where the “opposite” word is not really opposite in meaning – provide some interesting opportunities for English vocabulary exploration and expansion.

Let’s start with a simple, straightforward pair: inhale and exhale. You could hardly have one without the other, as every living creature knows, and we designate the products of these two verbs with another pair of equal opposites: in-breath and out-breath. You can take this pattern and run with it, finding along the way many word pairs in which what’s in forms a complement to what’s out: include/exclude, implicit/explicit, intern/extern, intrinsic/extrinsic, introvert/extrovert, import/export. The same dependable pattern of opposites holds for many English compounds that incorporate in and out: inboard/outboard, indoor/outdoor, inpatient/outpatient, infield/outfield. Compounds formed by fusing the parts of phrasal verbs also often represent opposite meanings: input/output, inflow/outflow, check-in/checkout, fade-in/fade-out, inbreeding/outbreeding.

So much for the easy stuff. What about the word pairs in which one member is far more common than the other, or has a meaning not at all expected from the meaning of its “opposite number”? These are the word pairs that provide an opportunity for a better understanding of the ways in which English words relate to each other.

You’re probably familiar with infect, and probably aware that English has no word exfect. There is, however, a word that is the etymological counterpart of infect, and that word is effect: before some consonants, the ex- prefix becomes ef-, or simply e-. The interesting thing here, however, is why infect seems to be more than poles apart in meaning from effect. What’s the explanation? The disparity in meaning is partly due to the fact that effect was used as a noun in English before it was used as a verb. If you look at the core meaning of effect as a noun, however – a change produced in something by another thing – you can see how an effect might be the result after infect has done its magic. A couple of other pairs in which ex- is disguised but in which you can probably find the connection with the corresponding in- word are inject/eject and infuse/effuse.

It’s likely that you have several other in- and ex- pairs stored in quite distant locations in your memory bank because their meanings don’t seem to marry up well with each other, but exploring the meanings of the words, while you have your thinking cap on, can reveal some interesting connections. Try this with insist/exist, inhibit/exhibit, inspect/expect, inspire/expire, impose/expose, and intend/extend. In some cases you’ll find that the words started off their careers in English with more or less opposite meanings, but then a later meaning eventually pushed aside the earlier meaning. This is the case with incite/excite, which today have meanings that overlap a great deal, but were originally more opposed to one another.

Some in- and out- pairs also provide interesting material for word exploration, but their contrast in meaning is more often due to the fact that they appeared in English centuries apart and for different reasons. Some pairs that fit this description are intake/out-take, income/outcome, and in-law/outlaw.

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Orin Hargraves


  • A fascinating piece Orin, really got me thinking! I always refer to my husband’s parents as ‘the outlaws’, rather than the ‘in-laws’ though – it’s somehow more apt! 😉

  • I’m not English native, so do not consider my mistakes. It’s a very interesting article, I’ve never thought about it in my native language (Portuguese) that has Latin origin. I have always heard that English is an Anglo-Saxon language and I couldn’t imagine the huge influence of Latin (it equals Germanic!).
    So, where does the “Anglo” part come from? From French? I think I’ll have to study a bit of anthropology to understand it.
    Thank you for this inspiring (that will never expire) article.

  • Objection – “in” is Germanic – and Latin. Scandinavian languages have “in”, German has “ein”. The Latin word happens to be the same.

  • Anders Lotsson: Yes. Objection seconded. The origin of the English preposition/adverb ‘in’ is Germanic. But I wouldn’t say the Latin word “happens” to be the same, because ‘happens’ suggests coincidence; English ‘in’ and Latin ‘in’ both date back to an earlier stage of Indo-European, before the Germanic and Italic dialects became differentiated.

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