Onset vs Outset

Frankenstein meets

I’ve seen the above words confused for each other a few times recently, right here on WordPress. By writing bloggers no less! Let’s fix that.

Outset = the beginning of something.

Onset = the beginning of something.

Okay, maybe I see the confusion. Think of “outset” as positive and “onset” as negative:

“At the outset of the Star Wars series, George Lucas created more iconic characters and ideas in two hours than any other filmmaker has since generated over an entire career. Unfortunately, with the onset of his egomania, Lucas forgot what made him successful and started insulting his audience with drivel like Jar Jar Binks.”

Or think of “outset” as something you chose and “onset” as something that chose you:

You didn't think I was going to put a picture of Jar Jar Binks on here, did you?

You didn’t think I was going to put a picture of Jar Jar Binks on here, did you?

“Larry was bitten by a werewolf. At the onset of his lycanthropy (during the subsequent full moon), he too transformed into a wolf and began killing. Later, he sought help from Dr. Frankenstein. At the outset of his treatment, he felt positive, but he soon realized only an idiot seeks advice from a lunatic who sews dead body parts into monsters and brings them to life with lightning.”

Or you could simply invert the words:

“At the outset of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Frodo Baggins and his friends set out to destroy the ring of power. After watching 53 hours of walking scenes and experiencing the onset of severe boredom, the audience became dead set on hiring a more assertive film editor for director Peter Jackson.”

Please note that today’s advice is more of the Malcolm Gladwell “it just feels right” school than of the English teacher “I’m telling you facts” school. Sometimes language is funky like that.

If you’re feeling the onset of an urge to respond, please visit the comments section below.

34 responses to “Onset vs Outset

  • fictionalpenguin

    I really wanted to make a joke about how Jar-Jar Binks is the farthest thing from drivel, and so on, but it was too painful. Far too painful indeed. An interesting read as always. To carefully balance out those kind words, another kind of interesting: may you live in interesting times. Haw haw haw. Excuse me, I’m sleep-deprived and riddled with poor decisions.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m sleep deprived as well, but my poor decisions began way beforehand. I’m still mad about lending that kid that toy in third grade, because I knew he would never return it. That was 403 years ago, and things have only gone downhill since.

      Trying to defend Jar Jar Binks is like trying to defend flesh-eating disease. I’m glad you decided against it.

  • Tuesday

    If high school English had been this entertaining, I wouldn’t have wasted an hour of my day today reading up on the proper use of commas! Werewolves and Dr. Frankenstein make the rules of grammar more memorable! Thank you!

    • ericjbaker

      Ooh. Now I feel challenged to come up with a good post about commas.

      Let’s see. Serial comma… cereal comma… Lucky Charms… list of cereals separated by commas… See how my brain (sort of) works?

      • Tuesday

        I’m sure it says something about me that I totally followed that line of thinking…made perfect sense. I should probably see a professional about this…

  • Kevin Brennan

    I thought I had enough to worry about, and now you throw this at me? Thanks, man. Thanks a lot.

  • livelytwist

    Oh oh, I feel it; I feel the onset of an urge to respond . . . 🙂
    I like onset so I won’t think of it as negative. Outset, say what? But I hear you.

    At the outset of my following ericjohnbaker, I enjoyed his clawing at the keys. Unfortunately, the onset of his use of scary photos with his blog posts hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm!

    Thanks for the advice Eric.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Phew…I don’t think I was the blogger who confused the two. I’ve never used the word outset. 🙂 Thanks for the clarification, Eric.

    • ericjbaker

      The perps were not readers of this blog or anyone I regularly follow. I do run across this mistake in my professional editing travels and wanted to do a post on it one day. When I saw it a couple of times earlier in the week on WP, I figured it was time. You know, since everybody reads my alphabet magic.


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  • Arkenaten

    From the outset I’ve wondered how you get so many wimmin commenting on your blog?

    • ujuh

      Hehehe it’s the onset of the Eric effect.

      • Arkenaten

        The Eric effect, eh? Well, I suspected this from the outset, him being such a hunk an’ all. ( I am assuming this is what wimmin think, yes? )

        But I am sure he would rather it were because of his writin’ skills. I mean, what bloke wants a bunch of wimmin hang on to his ev’ry word, for heaven’s sake?
        That leads to groupies an’ stuff an’ what have you and would be the onset of disaster, right? 😉

        • ujuh

          lol well, from the outset there was his writing skill, then the broody look that seems like the onset of a volcanic eruption–emotion wise i mean. What’s the possibility that his gory imaginations take root from that face alone?

          But what keeps us coming back for more? The look of this blog. Who doesn’t like images that scares the bejeezus outta their ass from the onset?

        • ericjbaker

          Yes, definitely the hunk factor. Hunk of what I don’t know. Moldy cheese?

        • Arkenaten

          The mature factor? 😉

  • http://theenglishprofessoratlarge.com

    It does get confusing. I have always thought of “outset” as the beginning and “onset” as a consequence. Our language always gives us puzzles. I love the movies you refer to, but I am always disturbed by the “Doctor” Frankenstein title. There was no doctor in “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. Victor Frankenstein was just a young student who happened to find the secret of reanimating a body. Movies also invented “Igor” who,also, did not exist in the book. I know, literary license and all that, but I always feel I have to defend Shelley.

    • ericjbaker

      You know, I never thought about that, but you’re quite right! He never graduated. Victor’s “special project” was probably not what his professors had in mind, either. I don’t mind Ygor. It gave Bela Lugosi something to do.

      Wasn’t Mary Shelley 18 when she wrote that? How many teenagers invent iconic characters and write literary classics that are still read nearly 200 years later? An astounding accomplishment.

  • ujuh

    Great English class, Eric. Though I don’t remember ever using these words, I’ll try ’em out in my next post……hopefully.

    • ericjbaker

      I used to do these “misused words” posts more often, but I’ve drifted away for some reason. Probably because I don’t do as much editing as I used to. People seem to get a kick out of them, so maybe I will dig into the mind vault and see what’s collecting dust in there.

  • nrhatch

    At the outset, let me say that I enjoyed this read from first to last . . . at no time did I feel the onset of a yawn. Write on!

    • ericjbaker

      My policy for writing fiction, composing songs, and posting about words and grammar is always the same: Entertain first and be substantive second. I think that’s a variation on “Life is short. Eat dessert first.”


  • Janna G. Noelle

    “Onset” always makes me think of diseases.

  • Uzoma

    Thanks for drawing my attention to the proper use of these words. I bet one of them is angry already, asking why you decided to spoil the show for them 😦

    That reminds me … I’ve not used ‘outset’ before.

    • ericjbaker

      These two words have agreed to a death duel in a steel-cage, bare-fisted brawl, with the winner getting total world domination. Who knew being a writer was so dangerous?

  • 1WriteWay

    Very interesting, Eric, and thanks for the lesson 🙂 Outset is a word I don’t hear/see very often, but I understand how it could be confused with onset. Since I work in the public health field, I’ve always associated onset with disease occurrence. That’s enough to make me avoid the word 😉

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