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

Google search results:

  • fill in a form — 14,200,000
  • fill out a form — 7,000,000
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To me as a German this is very interesting. Seems to me that there must have been some strong influence of German speakers in forming American English. In German you would lterally "fill out" a form ("ein Formular ausfüllen"). So that might explain the difference between British and American English. –  user15507 Dec 2 '11 at 14:14
    
Someone in EL&U recently wrote "fill up a form" and then I knew he wasn't an American. From "fill out" or "fill in" I would not draw that conclusion. –  GEdgar Mar 9 '12 at 13:47
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related –  New Alexandria Oct 24 '12 at 16:52
    
@GEdgar, is "fill up" grammatical then? –  Pacerier Mar 26 at 12:56
    
Yes, it is grammatical. Grammar (in general) does not depend on the meanings of the words. If "fill up a bottle" is grammatical, then so is "fill up a form". –  GEdgar Mar 26 at 12:59

4 Answers 4

up vote 21 down vote accepted

It appears that this is a British/American distinction. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) reports 92 incidences of “fill out a/the/this form” and just 2 of “fill in a/the/this form”, clearly establishing “fill out” as the standard idiom in American English. I haven’t worked out how to search the British National Corpus yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the results were reversed there.

Edit:

OK, I got the BNC to respond to queries—although it sure takes its sweet time—and I got 19+7=26 results for “fill in a/the form”, and 5+1=6 for “fill out a/the form”. So it does appear that British English favors fill in over fill out, although not to the degree to which American English favors fill out over fill in.

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Both are perfectly acceptable.

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Equally acceptable? –  aviraldg Aug 20 '10 at 16:10
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I would say so, yes. –  Noldorin Aug 20 '10 at 16:11
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And the answer is to pick whichever sounds better to your ear. Both are equally acceptable. –  J.T. Grimes Aug 20 '10 at 16:30
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youtube.com/watch?v=k6CkltzGAxY (2:10) Hugh Laurie - "Fill out a form? We've become American now, have we?" –  aviraldg Aug 20 '10 at 16:58
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@Aviral +1 for the little bit of Fry & Laurie –  ukayer Feb 13 '11 at 7:34

As an Englishman living in the US for almost 20 years, "fill out" still sounds jarring to my ears. I had never heard it used before I came to America.

I rarely hear "fill in" on this side of the Atlantic.

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The Americanism follows in line with other usages:

  • Knock out (to complete, slang, verb)
  • Round out (add more in order to ensure a broad range, slang)
  • fill out (no form-based, as in "why don't you use the rest of those flowers to fill out this basket")
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