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Tonight I was reading a text about the English language, which included the following sentence :

One in ten people speak (English) as their mother tongue

I was surprised by this usage, and so I checked in the OALD. I found that "in" is defined (18th meaning) as "used to show a rate or relative amount" and this example is given "a gradient of one in five".

"out of" is defined (11th meaning) as "from a particular number or set" and the following example is given "you scored six out of ten".

Am I the only one who cannot tell the difference between the two expressions? Would it be wrong to say "One out of ten people speak (English) as their mother tongue" ?

  • When it's only one in [some sample size], idiomatically we often favour that form, but it doesn't have any special different meaning. And when the number isn't one, we're likely to fall back on the generic form, as in 8 Out of 10 Cats on UK TV, or The Simpsons Nine out of ten orphans can't tell the difference – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 25 '13 at 23:53
  • I had never thought about how in and out – normally considered antonyms – are practically synonymous in this context (even if one of them does require an of). I love how flexible these little words are! You're correct: One out of ten people... and One in ten people... can mean the same thing. – J.R. Feb 26 '13 at 9:04
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"One in ten" is a ratio (10%) but does not define the size of the sample or group.

The definition you have for "out of" is correct.

While your phrase "One out of ten people speaks (English) as their mother tongue" is technically OK (though it should be speaks since "one" is singular), it makes no sense because we know more than 10 people speak English. You would need to add a qualifier, such as:

"One out of ten people in my office speaks (English) as their mother tongue".

It implies there are only 10 people in your office.

  • Sorry about "speaks", I just copied the previous sentence and substituted the out of part for the other one. Thank you for your examples, the difference between the two sentences seems to make more sense now. – Paola Feb 26 '13 at 0:29
  • I think you're stretching a point there. If I say "Where I live, nine out of ten people are native speakers of English", that doesn't imply anything about how many people live hereabouts. And there are hundreds of thousands of written instances of one out of ten are – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 26 '13 at 2:00
  • It could be they are commonly used or misused. I did find a definition of "in" that is "out of a group or set of ⇒ "one in ten will fail", so here "in" seems to have the same meaning "out of". So its possible the meaning in usage is similar, however the context of the usage needs to make clear the meaning. – user485 Feb 26 '13 at 2:59
  • I would rephrase that sentence even more: Out of the ten people in my office, only one speaks English as their mother tongue. I think the sentence you've given is still ambiguous, as it could mean there are 30 people in your office, and 3 speak English as their mother tongue. I see what you're getting at, but I think your presumed implication is an overreach. See here for a counterexample. – J.R. Feb 26 '13 at 8:56
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    While, technically, you may be right in the distinction about "out of", most American English speakers wouldn't bat an eye at using it the way the OP does – Kevin Feb 28 '13 at 22:21

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