November 14, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Change or change out

Posted in change out/swap out at 6:02 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

What is happening to the English language?  When did “change” become “change out”?  And did you know that people no longer share computer files, they “share out” computer files? And what about “swap out”?

“This year, shipments of what’s called “interchangeable-lens cameras”—high-end models that let users swap out different lenses—are diving suddenly after years of robust growth. Most of those are digital single-lens reflex, or DSLR, cameras—the bulky models used by professional photographers and enthusiasts.”

Wall St Journal, November 8

 I feel the reader’s pain. All of these terms refer to ‘an exchange.’ The ‘out’ is usually superfluous in these verb phrases. Garner calls it ‘an Unnecessary Particle,’ and he is right. But I can tell you how it came to be, and maybe that will give us some insight into the evolution of language.

Originally, the only word used with ‘out’ was not ‘change’ or ‘share,’ but ‘swap.’ In the technology world, this piece of jargon has a particular meaning. According to and some other sources I reviewed, it means to move a program from fast-access memory to slow-access memory. If you ‘swapped in’ a program, you would be doing the opposite: moving a program from slow-access memory to fast-access memory.

I haven’t been able to find the date when this expression was first coined, but I imagine that it was in the last fifty to sixty years. The only reference to the age of ‘swap out’ that I found mentioned the 1960s. Over time, the expression came to be used in connection to human memory and not just computer memory. And, over time, people became comfortable with the formation and applied it to other words such as ‘change out’ (which I have actually seen a few times as one word, ‘changeout’) and ‘share out.’

I probably would not use this formation; as Garner said, it’s unnecessary, and ‘exchange’ and ‘trade’ are perfectly fine words. The only place I see the ‘out’ as necessary outside of computer or tech jargon is with ‘eke’ as the meaning of ‘eke out’ is distinct from the meaning of ‘eke’ and with ‘falling out’ as the meaning is different from ‘falling.’ I’m sure there are other words that call for ‘out,’ and I’m just not thinking of them. But no ‘change out’ or ‘share out’ for me.



  1. Tom said,

    As a Navy aircraft mechanic, we used the term “swap out” to mean replace an airplane part. It could be a piece of electronic equipment, or it could be a piece of mechanical equipment like a strut. When we used “swap out” the implication was that one of the things being swapped was no longer working. Your rarely swapped out a working item for another working item.

  2. nickfielden said,

    I confess, as an Australian, I am not aware of the superfluous use of ‘out’, and am surprised that a newspaper of record such as The Wall Street Journal sanctions it. Then I don’t often read much of the press, other than The Economist that adopts a policy of plain and correct English.

    A counterpoint might be the use of ‘in’, such as ‘to share in’, where the beneficiary is not left out.

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