Putting out your bats or putting your bats out?

It’s been a long summer of cricket, and with the Cricket World Cup happening in this part of the world, we are reminded of the quite sensational outpouring of grief back at the beginning of the season, with the passing of young cricketer, Phillip Hughes.

Hashtag fever
His fatal on-pitch accident was the big story in Australia and around the world for quite a number of news cycles. And you may recall the gesture that began immediately and spread like wildfire throughout Twitter: the “Put out your bats” campaign, a remarkable display of the power of social media.

Within hours, front steps, balconies, fences and window sills were adorned with cricket bats, a kind of cricketing bouquet and symbol of solidarity.

So, what does this have to do with words, you ask? Well, it comes in the form of a curious byproduct of the campaign, in which many people ended up tweeting #putyourbatsout instead of the original #putoutyourbats. Obviously, to use either was fine considering the greater context, but it brings up an interesting area related to sentence syntax.

Not out?
Besides the obvious trending stats faux pas of hashtagging the wrong phrase, many will suggest (once they’ve removed the emotion from this particular example) that “put your bats out” is ungrammatical. And, just like in cricket, it’s all about that word “out”.

“Out” is commonly used as a preposition (a word usually before a noun/pronoun, that relates it to other words in a sentence). And so at first glance, “Put your bats out” is an example of a sentence that ends in a preposition – traditionally seen as a big “no-no” in English (although becoming less and less policed).

But we don’t need the third umpire. That’s because in this example, “out” isn’t a preposition at all. It’s actually an attached ‘particle’ to the verb “put” – to create the phrasal verb “put out”. In the original “put out your bats”, that’s fairly easy to spot, but the alternative retains the same “put out” meaning – the two words just happen to be split by the object “your bats”.

So, it turns out that both versions were fine (even if the original sounds a little better and would have been far more ‘on trend').

Can we use an example with a cat please?
An identical example with the more daily occurrence is:
“Putting out the cat”
“Putting the cat out”

Both retain the same “putting out” meaning, despite the gap between the two words in the second example. (Although of course a sentence such as “Fluffy is an inside cat” would render both sentences invalid immediately!)

Is this true for all such sentences?
Are you kidding; this is English remember. Plenty don’t work in either format. Consider the following:

“He didn’t hold out much hope”
“he didn’t hold much hope out”

The thing that our bats and cats having going for them is that “out” is being used to modify the verb, and advise an actual location (albeit a general one).

So, will this knowledge have made any difference to the show of support for Hughes late last year?
Of course not.

In the mass outpouring at the time, one could have tweeted #outbatsputyour and the message still would have been clear (even if it may not have been quite so widely read). But what this very real-life example does show is that some sentences are six of one, half dozen the other, whereas others will find themselves caught out every time.

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