I have a question about the usage of the phrase "stand out". According to this dictionary, "stand out" could mean either:

  1. to be very easy to see or notice
  2. to be much better than other similar people or things

Then I saw this:

Among newspaper companies, I'd posit that the Washington Post Company and Dow Jones — and, yes, The New York Times Company — stand out for their online strategies.

It seems that both definitions would work for this example. Am I wrong?


The basic literal meaning of the verb to stand out is to project outward. Imagine a nail that has not been completely hammered into a board, or a pimple on a nose.

Oblique and figurative meanings derive from the basic literal meaning.

A physical thing that "stands out" (the nail in the board, the pimple on the nose) is quite easy to see. It is easy to see because it stands out.

Often meanings will "blend into" each other like that.

Figurative meanings can be derived by analogy with the physical realm. When a quality stands out, let's say a singer's pitch, it is, of course, not physically protruding; rather we mean that when compared to similar things in its "vicinity" it is more noticeable than the others.

a : b :: x : y

This is a great restaurant all around, but their sauces really stand out.

Of course, we know that sauces are liquid and do not project up and away from the surface of the plate.

So, to address such uses, lexicographers add the figurative entry, "to be excellent". Yet sometimes people use the verb to mean "is an especially apt example of {something}", and that {something} need not be a desirable thing at all.

Glenn Gould stands out as an interpreter of Bach.
Pol Pot stands out for his ruthlessness.

So then, lexicographers have to clarify, possibly by adding another meaning, or by tinkering with the earlier definition.

... to be notable as an example of some trait or quality, good or bad...

Lexicographers are simply trying to say how words are used. They often attempt to do so in a way that shows the progression of meanings from the literal to the oblique and the figurative.

  • So, the usage in my example (from a newspaper article) is probably ambiguous? – meatie Jul 26 '15 at 17:35
  • 1
    @meatie: No, it's not ambiguous because statements are not made in a vacuum but in context. Judging solely from the sentence you quoted (I haven't read the article) there's something about their online strategies that sets these three apart from their competitors. Additional context would reveal whether the author means "in a good way" or "in a bad way". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 26 '15 at 17:51

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