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A character in a play is talking about how a girl committed suicide by swallowing strong disinfectant, but it's "burnt her inside out" that I'm questioning.

It may be possible to interpret it in both ways, but if any, which one out of these two:

"...burnt her inside out" - "inside out" as in she was burnt from the inside out. "...burnt her inside out" - "inside out" as in an a tee shirt that is inside out.

Which one is more likely to be correct? Can one interpret it in both ways?

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I don't really see the difference in your two examples, could you elaborate? –  nico May 19 '12 at 10:29
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Context is everything. In this case, I can't find any ambiguity: if we are talking about a suicide by poisoning, then it's obvious that "inside out" means that she was burnt from the inside of her stomach out to the rest of her abdomen, and that "inside out" wouldn't refer to the state of any item of clothing. –  J.R. May 19 '12 at 10:32
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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

It's one of those sentences that is grammatically ambiguous, but semantically clear.

I shot the man with the blue shirt.

You can parse this in two ways:

  1. I used the blue shirt to shoot the man.

  2. The man with the blue shirt was who I shot.

Both are correct interpretations of the sentence's grammar, but #1 is obviously wrong because a blue shirt isn't something that can be used for shooting.

Likewise, the girl was not inside out, that doesn't make sense (probably). She was burnt from the inside out.

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Yes, it is nominally ambiguous, and disambiguated by context; one doesn't expect a person to be inverted (inside out) and then burned. Rather the appropriate analysis is that 'burned out' is a phrasal verb ("The room was burned out" means the room had been consumed by fire). So the sentence is more like "the disinfectant burned out her insides". –  Mitch May 19 '12 at 12:37
    
Sentence should be 'burnt her inside**s** out'. –  Wayfaring Stranger May 19 '12 at 14:09
    
That's another possibility, but I don't consider it semantically possible. A light bulb can burn out, a person can metaphorically burn out if they get tired, or literally burn out if they're lit on fire and consumed by it, but chemicals don't "burn out" -- at least, not transitively. –  Dietrich Epp May 19 '12 at 22:15
    
@DietrichEpp Actually, I believe that is the correct reading here. To burn out has a separable particle, so it burnt her insides out == it burnt out her insides. –  tchrist May 20 '12 at 2:14
    
@tchrist: Yes, we both agree that it is grammatically possible. However, I don't consider it semantically possible, i.e., "burn out" does not make sense in context. I can burn out a light bulb by putting a high current through it, and I can burn out a person by making them work 80 hour weeks, but I can't burn out someone's insides with chemicals. Just like I can burn my hand on the stove, but I can't burn out my hand on the stove. –  Dietrich Epp May 20 '12 at 6:05
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A third option is to interpret inside in the sense of the OED's definition 2b of "inside, n.":

The interior of the body; the internal organs, esp. the stomach and bowels; the entrails. (Also in pl. in same sense.) colloq. and dial.

In this case it would have the meaning that the disinfectant burnt out her internal organs.

Nowadays it's more common to use the plural insides for this sense, but I have also seen inside.

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That was how I read it. –  tchrist May 20 '12 at 2:15
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