Spell it Out’: Definition, Meaning. Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on November 27, 2023

Are you wondering what it means when somebody says, 'Spell it out'? It's not the same as spelling a word, although the meanings are similar. In this article, we'll explore the meaning of this common idiom, its possible origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

If you're just here to find out what it means, here's the short version:

  • To 'spell something out' is to explain it directly and simply, as opposed to being vague about it.

What Does 'Spell it Out' Mean?

Sometimes, we beat around the bush about things and avoid saying them directly. This might be because we don't want to offend someone, or we're talking about a sensitive subject. So we tiptoe around the topic and instead give subtle clues and hope the person we're speaking to will get it.

Or, we can get straight to the point and spell it out for them.

  • The idiom 'spell it out' means explaining something clearly and straightforwardly, leaving no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity. 

Imagine, for example, that you're about to go into a meeting with your team, and you want to address something important.

You might say:

I'm going to spell it out for you: we can't tolerate any more lateness at the office.

But wait a minute, doesn't spelling something out mean to name the letters that form a word? That's right. 'Spell out' is a phrasal verb in that case. This is a word you'll often hear in a spelling bee. But more often than not, we don't use the preposition 'out' in this case. We just say that we are going to 'spell' a word,

So how do you use it? First, between the words' spell' and 'out,' you can use 'it' or skip it and use a noun phrase of your choice after 'spell out.'

See the underlined noun phrases in the following examples:

  • Spell out the terms of the contract.
  • Spell out a payment plan.
  • Spell out what we can expect.

The second thing to know is that since 'spell' is a verb, you can use it in different forms.

For instance:

  • Present participle: 'spelling it out'
  • Past indefinite: 'spelled it out'
  • Third-person singular: 'spells it out'

Where Does 'Spell it Out' Come From?

The idiom 'spell it out' has roots in the literal act of spelling words. The phrase probably evolved from the idea of stating each letter of a word to ensure the other person understood, especially in situations where there might be potential for confusion or misinterpretation.

Over time, this literal meaning expanded into a figurative sense, where 'spell it out' came to signify the act of explaining or expressing something clearly and unambiguously.

The exact origins of many idioms can be challenging to pinpoint, as they often develop organically over time through common usage.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it. As you'll see, I've included examples that use various tenses, such as the third-person singular, present participle, and past indefinite.

I need you to spell out the instructions for the experiment so that everyone understands.

The professor asked the students to spell out their reasoning in their research papers.

Instead of hinting at your feelings, just spell it out and tell her how you really feel.

It's essential to spell out the terms of the contract clearly to avoid any misunderstandings later.

Can you please spell out the details of the new project during the meeting tomorrow?

When teaching a new concept, it's crucial to spell it out for the students to ensure comprehension.

The manager decided to spell it out for the team to address the confusion regarding the new policies.

Instead of being vague, the speaker took the time to spell out the key points of the presentation.

Let me spell it out for you: we need to meet our deadlines to succeed in this project.

The CEO decided to spell out the company's vision in a memo to all employees for better alignment. 

Other Ways to Say 'Spell it Out'

There are plenty of other ways to say you're explaining something very clearly. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

Here are some of them:

  • clarify
  • elaborate
  • specify
  • break it down
  • lay it out
  • make it clear
  • make explicit

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone 'spells it out,' it means they're explaining something in a direct way that's easy to understand.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for other idioms, expressions, sayings, and more! 

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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