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What is the difference between "turn out the lights" and "turn off the lights"? Are they interchangeable? Which one seems more appropriate if there is no difference?

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3 Answers 3

I will hazard a guess

There were no more trams in Denmark after 1972 - however my grandmother would tell me to take the tram for another 20 years

They had petroleum lamps in their summer house, and when you wanted to turn off the light, you turned a brass knob until the wick was low and blew out the flame or turned it further down so the flame went out. Similar with gas lights. That is turning the lights out.

Since then, we flick a switch on and off. Turning the lights off is then taking over

Does not seem to vane much in popularity though

Google ngram

ngram

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Indeed, I caught myself "dialing" my sister to see if she "taped" a TV show on the DVR. –  choster Jan 28 '12 at 16:26

Turn out in turn out the lights is idiomatic.

Turn off is a general verb for turning off almost any device.

The meaning of both is equally the same and there isn't any difference at all, but non-native speakers may not be aware of the idiomatic one and therefore may find it unusual. The less capable ones may not understand the idiom at all. So when not sure how capable your listener is, use turn off.

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As @mplungjan's chart clearly shows, turn the light out is the older form.

I think the reason is simply a matter of increasing domestic electrification through the first half of the last century. Before we had switches, we were much more likely to put the light out

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In general, when fire/flame (oil/gas lamps) is extinguished, it goes out, not off.

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Yes, and when Sir Edward Grey said ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time’, it wouldn’t have been quite the same if he’d said they were going off. –  Barrie England Jan 28 '12 at 16:43
    
@Barrie England: Absolutely. If you go for "lamp" instead of "light", it's pretty much a one-horse race for put the lamp out –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 16:51

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