Look out! Tim Bowen tackles this popular and versatile word.

The word out normally functions as an adverb but it can also function as a preposition, an adjective, a verb and a noun.

As a preposition, it is normally used in the prepositional phrase out of, but in American English, and sometimes in spoken British English, out can stand alone as a preposition, as in ‘She looked out the window’. 

As an adjective out is used to describe a gay person who has told other people that he or she is gay, as in ‘She is one of the few out lesbian politicians in parliament’. The verb to out can be used in a similar context to mean to make it publicly known that someone is gay, as in ‘He is a gay schoolteacher who was outed on national television by one of his former pupils’ or ‘The magazine had a policy of outing politicians it considered to be hypocrites’.

As a verb, out can also be used to make an unpleasant or embarrassing fact about someone publicly known, as in ‘Catherine Zeta Jones was recently outed in her battle with depression, according to her husband Michael Douglas’.

The noun out is an excuse that is used in order to avoid having to do something or in order to avoid being blamed, as in ‘They’re trying to find an out so that they don’t have to pay for the damage’. 

A further adjectival use of out is in the pre-nominal phrase out-and-out, which means ‘showing all the qualities of a particular type of person you do not approve of’, as in ‘He demonstrated through his behaviour and his attitude that he was an out-and-out racist’.