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NOAD defines mete as:

dispense or allot justice, a punishment, or harsh treatment

When talking about this sense of the word, we normally hear the verb mete used in verbal phrase mete out. However, I don't think we'd usually say, “dispense out justice”, or “allot out a harsh treatment”.

This got me wondering about the omission of the word out, and simply using mete instead, as in:

The stern judge would often mete the harshest punishments.

In my research, I found that such usage is not without precedent, but it seems to be rare.

I found:

  • When looking up the word mete in Macmillan, the site automatically directs the user to the phrasal verb mete out, in both their American and British editions.

  • When looking up the word in Collins, the definition is preceded by: "usually foll by out".

  • When looking up the phrase "will mete a" in Google books, only 5 results are returned, and two of those are using the word mete in a different sense. Changing the search phrase to "will mete out a" returns more than four pages of hits. A similar disparity is found between "would mete the" and "would mete out the".

  • The example sentences at Reference.com all use the phrase mete out, such as:

It would be far better to conduct investigations and mete out punishments at the national level.

Still, I managed to find this in one of the book searches, from a 2008 romance novel:

A king might lead this action, but a queen would mete the punishment if it failed.

My conclusion is that one can omit the word out, but it seems to be rather rare.

My question is: How awkward does it sound when the word out is omitted? Would a writer be advised to err on the side of convention, and leave it in? Or is it purely a matter of preference?

Even the (gasp!) prospect of ending a sentence with a preposition didn't deter this biographer from using the phrase mete out:

...it was obvious to the father that the son would pay a price as part of the punishment that the king would mete out. (James Srodes)

As a footnote, I'm only asking about the word mete used in the context of administering some kind of punishment. Other definitions of the word (e.g., to measure) are excluded from this question.

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    ‘Out’ is an adverb here, not a preposition, so the humbug ‘rule’ of not ending a sentence with a preposition is not relevant at all. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 26 '13 at 10:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - That part at the end was meant to be tongue-in-cheek anyway (hence the mock gasp!), but thanks for pointing that out. – J.R. Oct 26 '13 at 11:17
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    Oh, and on topic: to me, leaving out the ‘out’ makes it absolutely, unequivocally unidiomatic to the point of ungrammaticality. As a copy editor and proofreader, I would simply assume that cases like that 2008 quote were errors and would add the ‘out’ back in. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 26 '13 at 11:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - I hope you eventually flesh that out into an answer; that's precisely the kind of response I was seeking. – J.R. Oct 26 '13 at 12:09
  • Will do, then—I only put it as a comment because it is purely personal preference and instinct (which could easily lead to the question being closed as primarily opinion-based). :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 26 '13 at 12:14
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In the sense ‘administer (punishment)’, I am quite certain that I have never used or even seen ‘mete’ on its own without ‘out’. It is to me an unbreakuppable (unupbreakable? Erm … inseparable!) phrasal verb construction, and leaving out the phrasal adverb is quite simply not possible in my idiolect.

As a copy editor and proofreader, if I had come across a sentence like your example from 2008, I would simply have assumed it was an error and added the ‘out’ back in—or possibly, if the context did not make the phrase clearer than it is in your quote here, I would have added a big, fat question mark, asking the author whether it is supposed to mean that the queen would measure the punishment (in whatever way that might make sense) and suggest that he recast the sentence entirely to avoid this ambiguity and jarring unidiomaticness.

However, this is all just my own, personal experience and gut feeling speaking.

Googling “mete punishment” in quotes does yield nearly 4,500 hits, of which at least some on the very first page appear to be (presumably) native speakers using the phrase without the adverb in this sense, in places where literacy and style would be expected (presumably):

The following sentence is from a December 1893 edition of Race and Place Newspapers (Richmond, VA):

Rape should be punished with death. The law decrees it, and we so agree. We insist that the law be left free to mete punishment and that the necessary safeguards be thrown around the accused to the end that the execution of an innocent man and the escape of the guilty brute may not be within the realms of a reasonable possibility.

Then there is this open letter from the Memphis, TN, Commercial Appeal, entitled Mete punishment where it belongs.

There are also some articles from the Huffington Post, etc.

So clearly, the adverb is not necessary to all native speakers. I do not know whether it is a coincidence that both the examples mentioned above are from the eastern/southeastern part of the US, or if there is indeed a dialectal difference here, with the phrasal verb being more loosely attached to the verb in that general area.

Googling “mete out punishment” in quotes yields over 700,000 results, which shows (even discounting incidental and disqualifiable hits) that the version with the adverb is far more common than without it, by a ratio of about 150:1 on the Internet as a whole. Presumably, this discrepancy is even greater in formal writing.

So I would strongly advise any writer to err on the side of convention here and always include the adverb. At least that (as far as I know) is not unidiomatic or ungrammatical to anyone.

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The Oxford English Dictionary notes "now usually with out" for this meaning. It does have an 1878 quotation

1878 H. M. Stanley Through Dark Continent II. xiii. 382 What punishment shall I mete to this thief?

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