The question: Is there a difference in meaning between "fill {something} in" and “fill {something} out” in American English?

was closed as a duplicate of "Fill out a form" or "fill in a form"

The former question has recently been rejected in the reopen review queue, so that's why I am asking on meta.

The only thing I see a duplicate of are the phrases cited in both questions: "fill in" and "fill out". Basically, the newer question can be summed up in the following inquiry.

Is there a subtle or significant difference in meaning between the following? [fill in and fill out} …, is it true in some American English dialects, fill in means to supply information whilst fill something out means to complete something in its entirety?

The older and more famous question asks in its entirety

Does one fill out a form or does one fill in a form? I've gotten different answers from the people I've asked.

I asked the user who had first cast their vote to close the newer question to explain but she/he has been absent from the site since their vote was cast.

Can someone please explain why the newer question is a duplicate of the older one?


The older question asked: "Does one "fill out" a form or does one "fill in" a form?" which suggests strongly that the OP believed there was a BEST (i.e more correct) way. There is an answer which says the two phrasal verbs mean the same and are interchangeable while NoHat's answer states that the Brits favour fill in over the other, but the margin of preference is not as great as the Americans preferring "fill out".

Instead, my question is asking "whether" and/or "why" Americans consider the two phrasal verbs significantly different in meaning. This explains also why I accepted Hot Licks' answer which did not contain references but the user is an American English speaker, and it is he who answered my question.

Lightbulb moment

I now realise where the "real" problem lies, three of the five answers submitted could have been answering the older question. These answers did not specifically address my question. Nevertheless, they were upvoted by the community, members who probably skimmed the question or jumped to the wrong conclusion. Without those three answers that skirted around my announced perplexity, the weak and unsupported CW reply would not have a leg to stand on. It is yet another instance when the mods on EL&U generally ignore my meta questions, and I have to settle for a CW answer consisting of a comment posted by a non-mod (which in the meantime has since been deleted, so who knows what else Dan Bron said), or a comment posted by a mod beneath someone else's answer. See infamous Yellow ax question I posted not long ago.

Yeah, fine. No. It's not. But I have to suck it up.

  • Your question deserves to stand on its own. I've cast the last reopen vote. Congratulations! – Lawrence Mar 2 '18 at 0:19
  • 1
    @Lawrence thank you, and to Tonepoet also. And to the other three users who reopened the question. Thank you so much. – Mari-Lou A Mar 2 '18 at 0:23

"They seem the same to me. If there were any situations where you’d prefer one to the other, the answers to the famous question would attest to that. Which is the test for duplicates: would the answers to one also answer the other? Note, the test is not whether the current answers do so, but that the question invites answers which could." – Dan Bron 21 mins ago

  • The more famous question @Dan Bron and MetaEd (who probably deleted the comment before I could respond and clarify) is asking WHICH phrasal verb IS CORRECT whereas my question asks if an AmEng speaker sees ANY DIFFERENCE IN MEANING between fill in and fill out. – Mari-Lou A Feb 28 '18 at 10:52
  • Sorry for the CAPS but I want that comment to stand out. – Mari-Lou A Feb 28 '18 at 10:53

Addressing the Other Answer Here

With five votes in favor of it, it places a significant burden of doubt on me, so I feel it is necessary to comment upon it:

"They seem the same to me. If there were any situations where you’d prefer one to the other, the answers to the famous question would attest to that. Which is the test for duplicates: would the answers to one also answer the other? Note, the test is not whether the current answers do so, but that the question invites answers which could."

I disagree with this assertion for a few reasons. The first is that many people take a minimalist approach when answering questions, and only address what is explicitly asked of them. Indeed, a question can be closed for having too broad of a scope.

Another is that a perfectly adequate answer such as NoHat's vaguely discourages more extensive answers on the grounds that the principle matter had already been addressed

Finally I think we can take the fact that none of the older answers, except the one Mari-Lou specifically commented upon, addressed this answer as a sign that it does not really seem to invite this sort of answer

I am not Suggesting that such an answer would be clearly disqualified from the questiion in its present form, but I do not think that is adequate in and of itself to merit closure. In the next section, I shall explain why in the following segment:

I Don't Think This Question Should Be Closed As a Duplicate of That Older One

If this was a matter of what could necessarily be interpreted as a broader and narrower question, I might support closing the narrower question as a duplicate of the broader one, but I do not think that is really the case. I think this is a question of addressing fundamentally different scopes.The old question is about commodity or correctness of one form over the other, with the answers addressing regional usage frequency and is postulated on the notion that they effectively mean the same thing. The new question is about differences in meaning. That is a significantly different scope in my opinion. Now differences in meaning could be used to argue that both forms are appropriate, but originally, none of the answers to the old question interpreted it that way and none of their answers would qualify as answers to the new question.

According to Stack Exchange Meta duplicate guidelines, the small amount of overlap does not necessarily mean that your question should be closed. At the very most, your question is at most, a borderline duplicate:

According to Spolsky we should only close real dupes, and according to Atwood, there are three kinds of dupes: Cut-and-paste, Accidental duplicates, and Borderline duplicates (requiring judgement as applied by the community.)

There are a few factors which should go into deciding which question is a duplicate based on the fundamental goal of duplicate closure mentioned in Why Are Some Questions Marked as Duplicate:

The fundamental goal of closing duplicate questions is to help people find the right answer by getting all of those answers in one place. This does not mean that every duplicate will immediately be closed; we love (some) dupes. There are many ways to ask the same question, and a user might not be able to find the answer if they're asking it a different way.

One is is that duplicate status should make it easier to find the answer people answering the question would seek. This is such an important criterion that it is not even possible to close a question as a duplicate of another question that has not yet been answered, even if it is indeed identical. Moreover, the answers to Mari-LouA's question imply that both are indeed proper, but the opposite is neither necessarily nor currently true. MariLouA's question is of a relatively reasonable scope that makes it easier to find specific semantic arguments

The other is that duplicate targets should not be chosen on the mere basis of age, but also on the basis of answer quality, because we want to be directing people to the best set of answers. On these grounds, if one question must be closed as a duplicate of the other, I would prefer to be directing people to MariLou-A's question, which has much more informative answers overall. Given that the other question is not a dialectical question, the answers to the other question are primarily opinion based in my assessment, with the exception of Nohat's, which has its basis in verifiable usage frequency facts. Now yes, the older question has more votes which normally implies higher quality contributions, but it also has the advantage of more age and more views which give it the natural propensity of having more votes. When accounting for the proportion of time and views both questions have, I think it is clear that the answers to Mari-LouA's have been better received overall.

I think another solution should be implemented

In this case, I think we have enough clues to deduce what the original questioner asked was meant to be different, so we can make a clarifying edit on behalf of the questioner that would cleanly divorce these questions. The questioner presented usage frequency facts from a questionable source, and accepted an answer based on more reliable usage frequency data. I propose that we change the older question's title to:

Which Is More Common Between Fill-In and Fill Out?

This has two benefits for us. One is excluding answers based on semantics, corralling them over to MariLou-A's question, or potentially a less restricted question about a more widespread distinction if we ever get one in the future. Another is that the extra keyword makes it easier for future researchers coming in from google to find the frequency data Nohat presented to us.

Most of the answers seem like they would remain equally valid with this change in wording too, except maybe Alan's "Both are perfectly acceptable" which could probably be changed to equally as suggested by a comment. I am not really too concerned about preserving the validity of an unfounded one liner anyway.

If the questioner rolls back, and/or makes a clarifying edit of their own which contradicts these reasonable assumptions, then perhaps a reassessment would be in order, but given what we know now, I think this is the most helpful course of action for all of our future visitors.

Perhaps I am wrong on that count, and I would welcome an audit of this opinion if it is too presumptuous. However, if it is so, then I am not sure that we can reasonably assume to know what type of answer the questioner wants, and perhaps the older question should be closed as being unclear instead, in preference of this question which provides a more obvious goal, (alongside a better research effort and so on).

  • Changing the question title on the older question is not the best solution and it is not what the OP asked in the main body. The OP clearly expressed uncertainty as to which phrasal verb was correct. If they had done any research on their own they would have found out that both forms are acceptable. – Mari-Lou A Feb 28 '18 at 10:43
  • I do appreciate the fact that you find my question significantly different from the older, and unresearched question, but I disagree with the solution proposed. There is no need for any other distinction because it is apparent in the recently edited title. It specifically asks about American English usage, which is precisely why I accepted Hot Licks' answer, the only user, who approached the Q from an exclusively AmEng viewpoint. – Mari-Lou A Feb 28 '18 at 11:13

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