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Can I fill in the blank for:

The organization ______ the best candidates from the student body.

with "winnow out" or "screen out"?

As a non-native speaker, to "winnow out" or "screen out" seem can mean to "identify" or "extract" something desirable in some colloquial sense. Am I far from the truth?

Here is a Link to MacMillan Dictionary that seem to support my opinion, but most of the other online dictionaries suggest the opposite.

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  • The organization picks the best candidates. Or selects them. Or identifies them alright. There is no reason to use any other verb except if you want to sound awful, or wrong, or both. (And if your intention actually is to sound awful, or wrong, or both, then you can fill the blank with absolutely any transitive verb at all.) Oh and for the love of God, do not use extract. When you extract something from a body, we are talking parasites. Or cancer. Or poo. We are certainly not talking people. Much less the best people.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 10 '16 at 14:00
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Note: this answer has been heavily edited, so some of the comments below might now seem out of place or irrelevant.

It seems that the meaning of "winnow out" varies: "winnow out" can be used to mean "remove what you want" or "remove what you don't want". It's real meaning may be closer to "separate", the verb.

I suppose it's a form of separation which is done gradually, by taking things out. You could throw those things away, and just keep what's left, or you could put the things you took out in a pile, and keep them.

Whether or not this interpretation is correct, it seems to mean one thing to some people and the opposite thing to others, including many dictionaries! eg the Collins dictionary lists examples using both versions:

http://collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/winnow-out

"The committee will need to winnow out the nonsense and produce more practical proposals if it is to achieve results." (remove) and "Time has winnowed out certain of the essays as superior." (keep).

A lot of people might just have no idea at all what it means - it's not a common phrase.

This means that using "winnow out" is liable to cause confusion, and so I'd recommend against it.

When we "screen out" something we're trying to remove that thing, like someone trying to detect a signal would attempt to "screen out background noise".

So, neither of them are appropriate in this context: "winnow out" is too informal (in my opinion) and potentially confusing, and "screen out" is wrong for the reason stated above: it suggests that the organisation doesn't want to see the best candidates.

I'd suggest "identifies" (if it just wants to find out who they are and not necessarily do anything yet) or "selects" if it wants to actually choose them.

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    And "They winnow out the weeds among those who come under their influence with quite extraordinary celerity and thoroughness." dictionary.com/browse/winnow Or "dismiss from consideration or a contest" vocabulary.com/dictionary/winnow%20out
    – Sean
    Aug 10 '16 at 9:50
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    Hmm, interesting. In this dictionary it seems to have the opposite meaning - oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/winnow - the example for defn 2.1 is "amidst this welter of confusing signals, it’s difficult to winnow out the truth" Aug 10 '16 at 9:52
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    I'm providing evidence for my assertion that "winnow out" is potentially confusing, if nothing else. Aug 10 '16 at 9:55
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    The second result from a Google Books search for to winnow out the is from the Oxford Thesaurus of English, which gives the example sentence It's difficult to winnow out the truth. The third result contains Nor can we rely on the marketplace to winnow out the false and promote the true. I think that's enough to show there's no consistency regarding whether the thing you winnow out is what you want to remove or keep. Aug 10 '16 at 11:18
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    @AndyT you are absolutely right, of course, I'll edit, thanks. Aug 10 '16 at 14:03
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First, some definitions:

Winnow verb
1.1 Remove (chaff) from grain: women winnow the chaff from piles of unhusked rice
2 Remove (people or things) from a group until only the best ones are left: guidelines that would help winnow out those not fit to be soldiers - ODO

I've included definition 1.1 for winnow as it provides some insight into how the term is used.

Screen verb 3.3 (screen someone/thing out) Exclude someone or something after evaluation or investigation: anti-spam software can screen out large amounts of unwanted email - ODO

As commonly used, winnow is associated with the idea of removing unwanted portions (it's more nuanced, but this is the relevant part here). Naturally, what is left is the desired portion. The unwanted parts are discarded (thrown out, as it were). These discarded parts may be said to be winnowed out. The example provided in definition 2 is consistent with this - it's those not fit to be soldiers that are "winnowed out".

One may ask whether the desired elements can be said to be "winnowed in". However, as Ngram suggests, that phrase isn't idiomatic. The process of winnowing is one of removal, so it isn't natural to apply it directly to a process of retention.

Likewise, screen out is associated with the removal or exclusion of whatever has been screened out.

In answer to your question, then, neither winnow out nor screen out are normally used to refer to the retention of "something desirable". The goal of winnowing or screening, however, is to end up with that "something desirable". You can therefore say that after winnowing out (or screening out) the undesirable elements, the "desirable" elements remain.

It's possible to go further, to say that the group has been winnowed (note: not winnowed out) to the best remaining candidates, as in the following example:

In addition, the program first employed less expensive screening strategies, such as reviews of official records, reserving the more expensive medical exams until the pool of candidates had been winnowed to a more manageable level. - Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders - by Blair B. Borque

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    What about 2.1 from your first link "amidst this welter of confusing signals, it’s difficult to winnow out the truth"? This contradicts your assertion that the thing which is winnowed out is the undesirable part.
    – AndyT
    Aug 10 '16 at 14:07
  • @AndyT Good point! That's an idiomatic expression that runs counter to the normal usage of winnow out. I think it relies on a different sense of out, as in seek out.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 10 '16 at 14:29
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To "winnow out" or "screen out" means to exclude, to rule out (Merriam, Free Dictionary)

Thus your sentence would mean that the organization is excluding the best candidates rather than selecting them.

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