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Jane Mairs, Director of English language Learning Publishing
Out to lunch
Tuesday November 22nd 2011
Question
Out to lunch
Answer

Takkie, in Japan, had this question: Can you say "He's out for lunch" instead of "He's out to lunch"?

Thank you for this interesting question. The short answer is you can, but it will have a very different meaning.

OUT TO LUNCH

The expression out to lunch is an idiom that means "too strange or confused to know what is really happening." Although some idioms have parts that can vary, this one is fixed. The three words out + to + lunch must be present and they must be in that order, with no other words between them.

The idiom out to lunch is almost always used with the verb to be, as in these examples:

  • I thought to myself, "She's completely out to lunch."
  • My 4th grade teacher was kind of out to lunch.

However, out to lunch can also be used with verbs such as seem and sound:

  • My boss seems really out to lunch.
  • Wow, your sister sounds out to lunch.

 

OUT FOR LUNCH

"He's out for lunch," with the preposition for, is not idiomatic. It has a literal meaning: He left his workplace to go have lunch.

 

THE TRICKY PART

The tricky part is that be + out to lunch, in some contexts, can also have the literal meaning that someone left to have lunch, as in this example:

  • I called his office, and Roger's assistant said he was out to lunch.

How can you know whether be + out to lunch means "very strange or confused" or "eating lunch"? It depends on what makes sense in the context. In the example above, it's much more likely that Roger's assistant meant out to lunch literally, because the context is an office, and because Roger's assistant would probably not want to say something insulting about the boss.

I hope this helps.

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