Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

In, Un, and Out

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2005

Doug and Adam have been bonding over video games on the Nintendo 64. Adam is now learning enough about how to use the control pads that he and Doug can have decent two-player matches in “Super Smash Brothers.” But conflict still arises at times. After the third time or so that Doug said, “I won,” Adam said, “Don’t tell me who winned.” (Which is actually good progress for him: A week ago, it was, “I WANT TO WIN!” and then he hit Doug.) And once or twice Doug has threatened to stop playing, because of Adam’s habit of waiting for Doug to choose his character so that he, Adam, can choose the very same one.

Today Doug was getting ready to play the game, but it wasn’t coming on the screen. He realized it was because the audio and video input cords weren’t plugged in.

“Oh,” he said, “Adam plugged them out.”

Well, I thought, if it isn’t my old friend, the out for un substitution! The last time I’d heard that was months ago, before Adam had learned how to unbuckle his seat belt, and wanted me to buckle him out. And a while before that, Doug had been watching me change a lightbulb, and commented on my screwing the old one out.

It’s a neat pattern: if you verb something in, then the opposite must be to verb it out. You can drive, slide or pop something in and out, right? Of course, when you say you “drove it in,” drove expresses the action you took, and in expresses the resulting state of what you drove. But when you say you “plugged it in,” plugged not only expresses the action you took, it also has in its semantics the resulting state of what you plugged. The in is largely redundant. Doug and Adam don’t seem to have picked up this sublety yet. It looks like for them, the plug in plug it in just means “manipulate the plug” (or the buckle or the screw for the other verbs), while in carries the entire burden of expressing the resulting state. And if the verbs plug, buckle, and screw just mean “manipulate the plug/buckle/screw,” then not only does it make perfect sense to use both in and out to express the result of such manipulation, in fact, it makes no sense to prefix the verbs with un-. With these hypothesized meanings for the verbs, you could no more unplug, unbuckle, or unscrew something than you could undrive, unslide, or unpop it.

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