Q&A: Fill in vs fill out

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.
A: Sorry?
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.
A: Really?
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!


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