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I am about to write an article about the German verb "ausmachen", which looking at the parts, looks awfully close to "make out". I did some reading on Merriam Webster and Wiktionary only to find that what I thought to be a sexual term only, actually had and still has a different meaning (to discern and others).

I did not know that and I doubt that many non natives are aware of that. Now I am wondering as to whether the actual connotation of "make out", that is the original non-sexual one, comes to the mind of a native speaker when he or she hears "to make out".

I know that in context it will be clear. But what about the pure infinitive... do people have to think to get the non-sexual meaning or is it present immediately?

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I can't quite make out what you're asking here. ;) –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Aug 23 '12 at 21:54
sorry for that... based on the answers so far I fear I have not quite made clear what I'd like to know. It is just so difficult to explain :) –  Emanuel Aug 23 '12 at 22:01
I think this is Not Constructive –  FumbleFingers Aug 23 '12 at 22:26
Making out is something that can lead to sex, but it is not sex itself. –  tchrist Aug 23 '12 at 23:36
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closed as not constructive by FumbleFingers, tchrist, David Wallace, Robusto, Matt Эллен Aug 24 '12 at 15:08

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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The term make out has at least three distinct connotations in American English:

Teenagers often make out under the bleachers. (engage in sexual activity)

I can barely make out the wording in that sign at this distance. (discern something, usually visual)

I hope you make out well in your new wall street job. (achieve a great deal, usually financially)

Without context, most American listeners (except for those referenced youths) would have no preconception as to which of these meanings you intend. All are in common usage.

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Making out isn’t sex. –  tchrist Aug 23 '12 at 23:35
@bib: thanks, that's what I wanted to know –  Emanuel Aug 23 '12 at 23:39
@tchrist - "I did not have sex with that woman." The term "sex" is used very loosely and broadly in US. Sexual activity can range from a discrete kiss to the full gamut of procreational (and non-procreational) activities. Most parents would consider "making out" to be a sexual activity but they might not call it "sex" which is often viewed as heretosexual intercourse. –  bib Aug 24 '12 at 1:15
@bib I am intrigued by the notion of heretic-sexual intercourse. :) –  tchrist Aug 24 '12 at 1:22
@tchrist - You haven't been following US social-political culture closely enough. If you don't do it the way I think it should be done, you are a heretic based on my reading of my sacred text. –  bib Aug 24 '12 at 11:22
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There is no confusion, because the verb (phrase)s subcategorise differently. Make out = discern requires a direct object; make out = have sex doesn't take one.

And for me, the sexual meaning is not familiar enough that it even comes to mind when I encounter the phrase in its normal meaning.

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and is the nonsexual make out common and in use in spoken English? The sexual sure is, that's why I know it but the other one was news to me :) –  Emanuel Aug 23 '12 at 22:03
As far as I know, make out in the sexual sense means "have an extended kissing and groping session with", not "have sex with". But I might be behind the times. –  Marthaª Aug 23 '12 at 22:04
@Emanuel: the nonsexual use is common in my spoken English, and the sexual meaning non-occurring (hence my unclarity as to its meaning, thanks Martha). To me the sexual meaning suggests American teenagers and nobody else, but I'm probably just unaware of the zeitgeist. –  Colin Fine Aug 23 '12 at 22:15
There is also a usage such as "make out like a bandit" that does not take a direct object. –  bib Aug 24 '12 at 11:24
@bib: I'm probably understanding that use from context, but it is completely unfamiliar to me. –  Colin Fine Aug 25 '12 at 17:02
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It depends on context.

I want to make out with Sally.

I think we'll make out fine if we can just get another sales rep.

No native speaker would be confused by the meaning of "make out" in either of those sentences.

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Thanks for answering. Anyway... I am sure there is no confusion as soon as context is given. But what is the first association that comes to your mind when you hear "to make out" without any context... say in a game or something. Do you think of the sexual, of the non-sexual or of both meanings intuitively?? –  Emanuel Aug 23 '12 at 21:57
@Robusto, you have failed to read the question fully. The OP specifically indicates an awareness that with context, the meaning would be clear. He is specifically asking about the connotations of the infinitive alone, without any supporting context. –  user16269 Aug 24 '12 at 3:00
@DavidWallace: You're correct, of course. However, the problem is, I found this question almost impossible to answer, owing to ironic process theory. Said the O.P., "Do you think of passionate kissing when you hear the words 'make out'?" Answered the ELUer: "When you put it that way, it's hard not to." –  J.R. Aug 24 '12 at 8:33
@DavidWallace: I reject the notion that any expression can be made clear without context. "We will bake" may mean at least two different things, and without context you can't know which. If the OP is asking which one will come to mind first, then the question should be closed as not constructive, since we cannot know what is in the minds of others and our own anecdotal experience is meaningless in the larger scheme of things. –  Robusto Aug 24 '12 at 11:58
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