English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Inside “outside”

Q: My current grammar bête noir is the American insistence on “of” after “outside.” I realize you are on the other side of the pond, but please be neutral. Which is more elegant—“outside the hotel” or “outside of the hotel”? Surely not two prepositions in tandem?

A: OK, we think “outside the hotel” is more elegant, but we don’t think “outside of” is wrong here, and neither, apparently, do most Americans.

Generally a phrase that looks like two prepositions is actually an adverb accompanied by a preposition, as in “flew out of the nest” … “knelt down on the floor” … “doubled over in pain” … “it’s over with now.” The first underlined word in each example is an adverb.

This is also the case with “outside of,” a phrase that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a compound preposition consisting of the adverb “outside” plus the preposition “of.”

Like “inside,” the word “outside” has several grammatical functions. It can be (1) a preposition, as in “the grass outside the fence”; (2) a noun, as in “the outside of the house is better than the inside”; (3) an adjective, as in “the outside world”; or (4) an adverb, as in “let’s step outside.”

The two standard American dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—both categorize the compound “outside of” as a preposition meaning either (1) “outside” in the spatial sense, or (2) “aside from.”

More to the point, both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s list the phrase without reservation (that is, without usage labels like “slang” or “informal”) when used in either sense.

However, some American usage guides object to using “outside of” in one or more of those senses.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), for example, frowns on using it for either sense, while Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says both uses are OK.

“Outside of,” as Merriam-Webster’s notes, “was in common use by standard 19th-century authors such as Emerson, Thackeray, Hawthorne, and Henry James.”

Matters are different in the UK, where Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says “outside” alone “is overwhelmingly the normal use” for both senses.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries online (a different  entity) have contradictory views about the phrase.

The OED says the use of “outside of” to mean “apart from” or “with the exception of” is “colloquial”—more proper to ordinary conversation than to formal English.

But the dictionary recognizes “outside of” as entirely normal when used in the spatial sense, defined as “beyond the walls, limits, or bounds of; to or on the outside of; external to.”

The British version of Oxford Dictionaries, on the other hand, sees the use of “outside of” in the spatial sense as “chiefly North American,” while its use in the “apart from” sense is listed without reservation.

The OED’s earliest example of the “apart from” sense is from J. Jacob Oswandel’s Notes of the Mexican War (1847):

“Those who have any money left can get something outside of government rations to eat, but those who have none have to take what comes, good or not good.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the spatial sense is from 1784, when the phrase appeared in a stage direction—“Outside of Dermot’s House”—in Poor Soldier, a comic opera written by the Irish playwright John O’Keeffe.

What do we think of all this? We agree with the editors of the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide:

“Our evidence suggests that writers and speakers retain the of when it seems right to them, and drop it when it does not. You have the same choice.”

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