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Arnold raced out of the door, and started...

In its time, it was once reported, this was one of the most often-read lines of fiction in the English language: it is the sentence fragment shown in a brief close-up shot of mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher's typewriter in the opening credits of Murder, She Wrote from 1984 to 1991. You can see it here.

Even conceding that "door" can be used as a perfectly legitimate synonym for "doorway," this always bothered me. One may race out of a room, and one may race through a doorway, but I don't see how Arnold could have raced out of a door—unless perhaps he had been standing still in the middle of the doorway before suddenly "racing" out of it, which seems unlikely.

What's interesting is that "Arnold raced out the door" doesn't bother me as much without the of, perhaps because I'm subconsciously putting an implied through into the sentence: "Arnold raced out [through] the door." Even so, I was surprised and amused to see that, out of all the examples they could have chosen, Merriam-Webster illustrates its definition of out as a preposition with the phrase "ran out the door." (Were the writers of this definition Murder, She Wrote fans, I wonder?) This doesn't seem to leave much room for my interpretation.

How should the clause "Arnold raced out of the door" be evaluated? Is it ungrammatical, grammatical but poor form, or grammatical with no reservations?

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To me, as a native speaker, it seems perfectly grammatical on first read, but I'm unable to explain why (maybe it's because "out of the doorway" sounds fine, or just because a door sounds like something you can go out of; it doesn't have to be logical). – aedia λ Aug 28 '11 at 19:37
If you race through a room you are assuming that the room has no doors or they are all open. If you race through a door, taking that literally, is impossible. A door is too small for a child to fit into, so technically that is improper grammar. But if you are assuming that the door is open (which is not specified in the small context that was given to me) then you could race through a door, because the absence of the door allows you to go through it, because more often than not it is closed. – alexy13 Aug 28 '11 at 19:53
Rethinking my previous comment, it is poor grammar because you have to make an assumption that a) the door is open, b) it's an expression, as if to say that he is running so fast that he practically runs through the door and c) he cannot fit in the door. Of course these assumptions are relatively easy to make; the sentence itself should use "doorway" to make it easier to read and make the sentence dramatically correct without any possible chances of a different meaning. – alexy13 Aug 28 '11 at 20:00
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Consider the following three sentences.

  1. He raced out the door.
  2. He raced out of the doorway.
  3. He raced out of the door.

In the first sentence out is a preposition meaning 'through to the outside'. This is entirely unproblematic: he was in a room or building, and he raced out of it through the door(way).

In formal English the second sentence is equally clear: out is an adverb meaning 'moving or appearing to move away from a particular place, especially one that is enclosed', and the sentence means that he raced out of the doorway in which he had been standing. I shouldn’t be at all surprised, however, to find that some people use it synonymously with (1).

Since 'doorway' is one perfectly standard meaning of door, and since it is more than a little difficult to stand in a physical door, (3) is formally synonymous with (2). However, many people, evidently including at least one writer for Murder, She Wrote, use it synonymously with (1). For those people out of has in effect become a compound preposition meaning 'through to the outside' as well as the combination of adverb and preposition found in the formal interpretation of (2). I suspect that this, like in back of for behind, is more common in the US than in the UK. In the US, at least, it’s common enough to qualify as normal English, though there are also speakers like me who would never use it because it’s ungrammatical in their idiolects.

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I think this is a job for Google Ngrams.

Google Ngrams shows that in 1900, out of the door was the expression both in the U.S. and the U.K. But the majority of Americans switched from using out of the door to out the door around 1940, and now out of the door is quite rare. This same switch wasn't made in the U.K. until 1990. So I would guess out of the door sounds funny to many Americans, but both expressions sound perfectly fine to U.K. speakers (except maybe for traditionalists trying futilely to stop the language from evolving).

I believe the choice between these expressions is idiomatic, and trying to analyze which to use with pure reason is not going to yield worthwhile results.

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As this one shows, the word "of" has also been dropped from "out the window". Though it seems to be a bit later, in that the crossover to dominance didn't happen until the early 70s, about 30 years after that happened with "door". – FumbleFingers Aug 29 '11 at 1:38
@FumbleFingers: "out of the window" still seems to be more common in the U.K. although this may not last for much longer. The difference in crossover time is at least partly due to the unexplained fact that the expression out (of) the door is much rarer in the U.K. – Peter Shor Aug 29 '11 at 2:59

The NOAD has the following notes about using out of, or out:

The use of out as a preposition (rather than the standard prepositional phrase out of), as in "he threw it out the window," is common in informal contexts, and is standard in American, Australian, and New Zealand English. Traditionalists do not accept it as part of standard British English, however.

The phrase, whatever it uses out of or out, is grammatically correct; in both the cases, the phrase is standard in American English, but the standard British English phrase is the one using out of.

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'Out' for 'out of' - common with 'door' and 'window', but less so in other phrases. For example, I have never heard 'out sight, out mind' or 'out pity'. Perhaps in the future such usage will not be 'out the question'.

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And even out the door is commoner in the US than elsewhere. – TimLymington Mar 4 '13 at 23:34
@TimLymington: Ron's answer here just prompted me to edit my own question, but I never thought to compare UK/US corpuses. You're quite right - the move to discard "of" is indeed primarily American-led. – FumbleFingers Mar 4 '13 at 23:47

As this NGram shows, over the last half-century, "out the door" has displaced the previously-preferred "out of the door".

I didn't include the most recent 20 years or so, because the new form is now so common that would distort the vertical scale, so you'd hardly notice the 'crossover point' around 1940. But as you can see here, that red line just keeps going up at the same rate.

I doubt there's really any meaningful reason for the change - it's really just a matter of style. But most people today don't often hear the older form, so it seems 'strange' to them when they do.

I think the issue of whether or not it's "grammatical" is really just pedantry. Firstly, there are hundreds of thousands of written instances of ran out of the door; any rule of grammar debarring such a commonplace usage would surely be flawed. Secondly, it's not obvious to me how any such rule could be phrased to avoid also finding fault with jumped out of the window (where I'm interested to see the tendency to discard "of" is much more recent, and less pronounced.

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Grammatical? Certainly! Just the way "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is grammatical, or they way "Arnold raced out of an electron" is grammatical. Grammaticality has to do with how the rules of a language allow the constituents of a sentence to come together.

Coming to the phrases you wrote, scientists and lawyers may sometimes need to split hairs and make distinctions between such phrases, but usually, we find such phrases acceptable and equivalent because of conversational implicatures.

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