Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we get our fill of forms…
Q: Hi AWC, check out this new app I got!
A: What it is?
Q: It’s called ‘Grammar Tinder’ and you get to swipe left on grammar issues that don’t particularly interest you.
A: Wow, times are changing.
Q: I know, right? Not long ago you had to go out to bars to learn about grammar.
A: Um. Okaaay. Not entirely sure that’s really the same–
Q: Oooh hey – well HELLO there… okay, I just swiped right on this beauty.
A: Wait, do you mean you were swiping through Grammar Tinder instead of paying attention just now?
Q: Yeah, sorry about that. But this is one hot grammar…
A: Fine, so show us this attractive example.
Q: Here you go.
A: Hmmm, it’s okay. Not stunning. But could have a good personality.
Q: Shall we discuss it today then?
A: Sure, let’s hit that.
Q: So, the topic that caught my eye was whether you’d use “fill out” or “fill in” when talking about surveys or forms or applications etc. What’s the go here?
A: Fill in a form. Fill out a form. Let’s start by saying that both are acceptable. And battle lines get drawn a few different ways.
Q: Such as?
A: American usage strongly favours “filling OUT a form” – the idea of filling IN a form would seem odd to them.
Q: Swipe right.
Q: Every time you say something I find agreeable, I’ll swipe right. If I’m still unsure or if it just sounds ugly, I’ll swipe left.
A: You’re rather enjoying this metaphor aren’t you?
Q: Oh yes. Very much. Please continue.
A: So meanwhile, the British/Australians tend to favour “filling IN a form”.
Q: Swipe right.
A: Which brings us to a further demarcation of the two.
Q: Swipe left.
A: You want to know what ‘demarcation’ means, don’t you?
Q: Swipe right.
A: Okay. It means a dividing line. And another way in which “fill out” and “fill in” sometimes get divided is that you’d fill IN a particular box or field on the form, but fill OUT the entire form. Micro vs Macro-level filling.
Q: Swipe right. So will I go to grammar jail if I fill in a form, but fill out an application?
A: Well, we’d recommend being consistent, but you could definitely do worse.
Q: You certainly could do worse – check this one out. Swipe left.
A: Anyway, so if you Googled the exact terms “fill in the form” and “fill out the form”, you’d get about 40% more results for the latter – more a reflection of the American-heavy internet content than anything else.
Q: They really are set in their ways aren’t they?
A: Well, in that context only. Americans might fill OUT an application to go on Wheel of Fortune yet they’d still fill IN the blanks on the show, just like everyone else.
Q: “I’d like to buy a vowel please.” Love that show.
A: Generally, when referring to a document of some kind, it’s wise to stick to one or the other. And if you’re writing for American audiences, “fill out” is preferred – “fill in” for the rest of us.
Q: There’s not much in it.
A: A little bit like that app of yours. The differences are so subtle that it’s unlikely you’ll ever have the grammar police taking a swipe at you.
Q: Swipe right you are. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have two dates tonight.
Q: Yes, 9/6/16 and 6/9/16 – the second one is an American.
A: We’ll discuss that another time.
Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!