Recently, I has watched the movie "Inception" and there is a basic question occurs to my mind.

It's one of the subtitle "A dream within a dream?".

I wonder the difference between in and within.

If the sentence became "A dream in a dream?", how the meaning would be changed?

Could anyone tell the difference and correct usage?

Thank you!

  • 3
    Think of within being used there as an intensifier, an extra emphasis on the notion of one thing being wholly contained within another.
    – Robusto
    Sep 5, 2015 at 15:01
  • 1
    "within" is a derivation of "in". Though etymonline has another view I tend to see it as a composition of "mid/middle+in". So "within" is an intensified "in".
    – rogermue
    Sep 5, 2015 at 18:31
  • 'Within' sounds less clinical, more poetic. Sep 6, 2015 at 16:55
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? What is the difference between "in" and "within"? Jan 20, 2021 at 16:12

2 Answers 2


There is ‘within’ and there is ‘into’, the former meaning ‘inside of’, the latter implying motion towards. ‘In’ can be used in both senses, e.g. ‘he has an apple in the bag’ and ‘he puts the apple in the bag’ are both correct; but one cannot say ‘he has an apple into the bag’ or ‘he puts the apple within the bag’.

  • Do you have any sort of evidence for your assertion that you can't put an X within a Y? It seems perfectly grammatical to me, and it's certainly in use...
    – psmears
    Sep 7, 2015 at 16:52
  • I don't have access to the OED to see exactly which usage it might say is obsolete (the one you quote is clearly different from the one we're talking about), but my link was to a translation from the late 20th century, and a quick web search will turn you up many more - the evidence would suggest it's really not obsolete. Yes, put X inside Y is also perfectly grammatical and idiomatic.
    – psmears
    Sep 7, 2015 at 19:57
  • No, I say that because the examples both use within as an adverb rather than a preposition (i.e. rather than (verb) within (noun) it's just (verb) within). You may believe that about inside, but usage and dictionaries would seem to disagree :)
    – psmears
    Sep 7, 2015 at 20:17
  • I'm not sure what counts as "litterature" (sic) but it's not hard to find examples - a quick search turned up one remarkably similar to the one under discussion (search for "inside the bag"). I'm sure you can find more if you spend time searching :)
    – psmears
    Sep 7, 2015 at 21:06
  • You may believe it would be a good distinction; unfortunately life and language do not work like that, and there is so far scant evidence to suggest such a distinction exists, or has ever existed - regardless of what anyone may have taught. If using within for motion was good enough for Shakespeare (see, e.g., Midsummer Night's Dream II.1; As You Like It II.3) it's probably good enough for the rest of us :)
    – psmears
    Sep 7, 2015 at 21:56

A play within a play is a literary technique, where a short play, or snippet of a play, is staged inside of another play (my own definition).

A dream sequence is "a technique used in storytelling, particularly in television and film, to set apart a brief interlude from the main story. The interlude may consist of a flashback, a flashforward, a fantasy, a vision, a dream, or some other element" (wikipedia).

So the phrase a dream within a dream suggests a short secondary dream sequence is staged inside the primary dream sequence.

On the other hand, "A dream in a dream" doesn't convey any meaning to me.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.