What is the difference between within and inside?

I've read a lot of letters with these words and people say that they mean the same.

Dictionaries often use the word inside in their definitions of within. Here's an entry from Oxford Dictionaries Online:



Inside (something):

the spread of fire within the building

1.1 Inside the range of (an area or boundary):

property located within the green belt

1.2 Inside the range of (a specified action or perception):

we were within sight of the finish

1.3 Inside the bounds set by (a concept, argument, etc.):

‘full cooperation within the terms of the treaty’

Are there any semantic or grammatical differences between these two words?

  • 2
    Related: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/10087/…
    – user66974
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 20:53
  • 1
    Please edit this to add what research you have done to try to answer this yourself. Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 1:15
  • 2
    @Araucaria Your edits do not help because we do not know exactly what the problem the OP was having is. They need to be the ones to add the research which will show why they still have a question afterwards. Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 12:18
  • 2
    If you want to ask and answer this question, go write your own with your own research. We'll very happily make this a duplicate of that. Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 12:20
  • 1
    I have edited your post a bit to enable it to be reopened. If you're unhappy with the edit, or feel that it doesn't reflect your original question, please feel free to roll it back. To do this, click on the red "edited ..." phrase, just to the left of your name, below your question :-) Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 12:20

5 Answers 5


Both words refer to the interior of a three-dimensional concave surface; i.e, a container.
But they don't refer in the same ways; there's a lot of differences. @tchrist pointed some out.
Others include:

  • because inside is a noun (but within isn't), one can construct complex prepositions like
    glue the paper to the inside of the box

  • similarly, because it is a noun, inside can function as an adjective, as in the inside front cover, or in noun compounds like inside man or inside information.

  • inside, but not within, often uses of to mark its object:
    He got here inside (of) a minute but not *He got here within of a minute.

  • inside contrasts with outside, but within contrasts with without.
    These are quite dissimilar contrasts. For one thing, they don't do negation the same way.

    • They stood there within easy earshot, but without any comprehension at all.
    • Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
      –   Groucho Marx
  • That all seems within reason—and rights and means, and view and sight and earshot, and all those other things it’s tough to get inside of.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 22:56
  • 2
    Wow, a grammar answer on EL&U! +1 Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 11:17
  • 1
    As an aside, in Scottish usage 'within' can also contrast with 'outwith'. You can be 'outwith earshot'.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 14:20
  • 1
    @AntonSherwood: Not so much metaphorical as a projection; there are words like lawn and yard that can refer to the same place, yet differ in their dimensionality -- one is on the lawn (2-D) but in the yard (3-D). This happens all the time because we actually live in a 2½-dimensional universe, since we can freely move in only 2 directions due to having evolved in a 1G field. And raising barriers around any surface creates a 3-D volume, at least perceptually. Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 15:33
  • 1
    @JohnLawler Next time we meet, I hope I'll remember to tell you my thoughts about public spaces in 0g. Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 22:55

Both can be used as prepositions or adverbs, but only inside can function as a noun or an adjective.

So for example:

  • You can talk about the inside of something, but never its *within.

  • You can have an inside job, but never a *within job.

  • 1
    Plus 1 for the technical approach Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 21:06
  • What's going on, is research no longer required? Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 1:17
  • @tchrist I was referring to the question. Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 1:53
  • 2
    There's also the fact that inside often represents a goal, where as within is largely restricted to fixed locations in modern English (if you added that in I could delete my post here). Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 11:35

To say 'they are the same' would mean they are interchangeable and in 90% of the cases they are not. The only time within can replace inside is in highly formal context - ' office assistant is needed, apply within'. But most frequently within is used for its own sake to mean 'in limits/reach of something', e.g. - within a hundred metres of each other, within walking distance, within someone's reach, etc..


In addition to the useful answers here, there is one very specific difference between inside and within. You are unlikely to find this difference in a dictionary.

Both inside and within are loosely said to introduce locative complements. However, the term locative is quite a loose term. We can distinguish between locations, goals and sources. In modern English both inside and within freely indicate locations. However, inside can also frequently indicate goals, whilst within rarely can. For this reason the following sentences are likely to be given very different interpretations:

  • Bob walked inside the building.
  • Bob walked within the building.

Notice thought that this is not an absolute difference, but a tendency. If the verb and context make it clear we can occasionally use within to indicate a goal, although this is quite rare:

  • He went within the building.

To my modern English ear the sentence above is quite awkward.

  • 2
    This is strongly reminiscent of how languages that inflect their nouns for case will sometimes use that case to distinguish motion from location when that noun is not in the subject position, serving as arguments to verbs and prepositions. Both Latin and German do this, for example, using the accusative when directed motion is involved but one or another non-accusative case (ablative/locative in Latin, dative in German) when just talking about where something happens to be. The way the preposition in is used in all three languages can be instructive, where the accusative is more into.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 13:15

They're essentially the same, with subtle differences in connotation and approach only. Both words mean that a thing rests/resides/is located on the interior of another thing, typically a container or vessel. However, the usage differs by meaning. "Inside" tends to convey a degree of isolation or separate connotation from that which surrounds or contains it, as a spacial indicator, meaning that it and its vessel are two different, separate entities(such as a person and a building). "Within" carries the alternative connotation, that the thing contained and its vessel are closely related, or tied somehow(such as one's soul and their body). The differences are delicate, and typically ignored, aside from preference and formality.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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