Earlier this evening, while WhatsApping with my friend about staying in or going out, I tapped out the following phrase: best to stay in out of the rain (we’re staying in). I didn’t think anything about it, until I happened to glance at it as I was putting my phone down. My eye zoomed in on the middle, specifically on these two words: …in out…. Hang on a second, I said, that can’t be!
Surely, I thought, I can’t have in and out together like that. Only, the sentence seemed fine when I’d written it. And even though it seemed weird looking at it, I knew that, informally at least, it was fairly natural to produce a sentence like that. Certainly here in Ireland, but I can imagine similar phrases in other dialects. But surely there’s something not quite right about a sentence in which in and out, polar opposites as they are, are next to each other. So I decided to have a closer look at the phrase.
The first thing that seemed to provide an answer was the fact that there are really two expressions working together here: stay in, and out of the rain. Stay in makes sense, there’s nothing really strange about it. It’s what’s known as a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb, simply, is a verb followed by another word, usually an adverb, which together have a singular meaning. Stay in is of course the opposite of go out, another phrasal verb.
And then of course, there’s out of the rain. Again, a pretty common phrase, and it needs some kind of verb before it. You could say, for example, Get out of the rain. Or, you could use a phrasal verb, like stay in. So when we break it down like that, we can see that the strange-looking result of having in and out together actually has a fairly straightforward explanation. It’s simply a result of using a phrasal verb instead of a simple verb, which adds that little in to the phrase. Using English perfectly correctly can sometimes lead to apparently illogical results, but usually it doesn’t confuse us. I wouldn’t normally even notice that I had put in and out together, and I’m sure I’ve done it many times before.
Still though, thinking about it, isn’t the phrase get out of the rain a little strange? When you think about it, don’t you normally go inside when you get out of the rain? It seems quite illogical when you think about it. But then, when I start to think of alternatives, nothing else really seems to work better. The most obvious and logical alternative that comes to mind is to get away from the rain. It makes logical sense, but it feels a bit too strong. Getting away from something suggests danger. Perhaps come in from the rain would work. But to me that’s too weak: it feels like a gentle invitation: Come in if you want, but if you’re happy to stay out there, that’s no problem. I think (verb) out of the rain works because the out reminds us of Get out!, so it has a sense of urgency, but not as directly as saying get away from the rain does. So I think it does make sense in this case to put in and out together, if you overthink it.
Logic is a funny thing. It tells you that it’s right to say I’m going to stay in, and to say I want to be out of the rain. And it then tells you that it’s ok to say I want to stay in out of the rain, only then to immediately say, Oh but it’s weird to put in and out together, isn’t it? So which apparent voice of reason do you listen to then? I’d advise listening to none of them.
Logic will generally get you far in life, especially when it comes to language. Most rules and conventions in English are fairly logical, and seem to have clear reasons behind them. If you don’t think too much about it, or investigate specific phrases too deeply (if you’re not me, basically), languages seem fairly logical. But it’s important to remember that languages are complex things that evolve organically. They’re usually made up of different patterns that derive from different contexts, which often stay parallel, but occasionally cross paths, and cause confusion or contradict each other. You can try to work your way around these knots, like finding a way to rephrase stay in out of the rain. But that’s a lot of hard work. So I say, don’t worry about it. If it works for you to say stay in out of the rain, then say it. Equally, if it feels weird for you, then find another way to say it. But don’t get too stressed about logic. Trust me, English doesn’t care that much about being logical, and is perfectly happy to sit in right next to out, so there’s no need to try to impose logic on a beast that’s just going to shake it off.