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the non-standard use of prepositions; or, why are you saying ‘on’ so much?; or, way to confuse the non-native english speakers, guys

Filed under: — adrian @ 6:19 pm

I’ve noticed that there are a number of instances where I use different prepositions when some other people use “on”:

  • “on line”: e.g. “Where are you? I’m on line for the movie.” I say that I’m “in line”.
  • “on accident”: e.g. “I bought two of the same thing on accident”. I’d say that I’m did that “by accident.”
  • “on the…station” [I’ve only heard this once, I think] e.g. “We are now on [the] Civic Center station.” I would say that we are “at the Civic Center station.”

I find it strange that the language hasn’t converged on one usage by this point.

13 Responses to “the non-standard use of prepositions; or, why are you saying ‘on’ so much?; or, way to confuse the non-native english speakers, guys”

  1. Colin Says:

    I think the language *has* converged to one usage by now. I would argue that the people who say “on line”, “on accident” or “on the station” are wrong. Just because they may be native speakers doesn’t mean that certain things that they say aren’t wrong. Lately, I’ve been interested in various linguistic mistakes that people (including native speakers) make. For example, eggcorns, malapropisms, spoonerisms, and mondegreens.

    I suppose it’s possible that this type of preposition use is common in San Francisco and wouldn’t be considered wrong there. However, I have never heard anyone use “on” in those contexts on the east coast or in the midwest, so I would consider it to be wrong in those places. On second thought, I have heard people say “on accident”. I, personally, say “by accident”, but saying “on accident” makes at least partial sense since the opposite would be “on purpose” and not “by purpose”. I can see no justification for saying “on line” or “on the station”, unless the person is physically on top of the line or the station.

  2. adrian Says:

    Colin, I don’t believe in prescriptive linguistics. That is, if a group of people says something, it’s right. That’s how language changes. Enough people use “peruse” as in glancing at something and the meaning actually changes.

    I’ve heard a lot of people say “on” accident in all areas of the country. “On” line is not quite as common but I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard it. At least one Midwesterner says it and I’ve heard it all over.

    I’d be fine with saying “on” station may be a verbal tick or misuse since I’ve only heard it once.

  3. andy (not andyl) Says:

    I think I say “on accident.”

    “On line” is, as far as I know, a New York thing.

    I’d also say that the number and variety of American English dialects are a pretty good sign that no standard usage is going to settle anytime soon. And the US is a pretty tame place as far as dialectic variations go – most of us tell time the same way, unlike, say, the Schwabians.

  4. andy (not andyl) Says:

    Also, this page is pretty awesome.

  5. Colin Says:

    Adrian, I wouldn’t call myself a strict prescriptive linguist but I do think there are some standards that need to be upheld. The bottom line is that languages exist in order to communicate ideas from one person to another. If certain groups deviate from the grammar and vocabulary that is widely agreed upon, then they degrade their ability to communicate with people outside of that group. Then, from the perspective of those outside that group, what the group says is wrong. This is basically what I said in my first comment – such usage of “on” might not be considered wrong in certain places (e.g. San Francisco) but in other places (e.g. large chunks of the US) it might be.

    I’m curious, how large do you think a group has to be in order for something non-standard that they say to be considered correct? For example, there is a group of people I have encountered online who (to borrow an example from the wikipedia page on eggcorns) say “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”. How large does this group of people have to get before what is obviously an error becomes correct?

  6. Milkshake Says:

    I have heard “on line” many times. Perhaps because of my years in NYC?

  7. Lizzy Says:

    “On line” is definitely common, and thought to be ubiquitous by locals, in New York.

    “On accident” is something that I hear in the mid-Atlantic more than anywhere else.

    Another one that bothers me: the use of “whenever” in place of “when.” Can anyone explain this to me?

    Also, Adrian, you the one I can count on to point out to me that I am wrong every time I use a word in an uncommon way. But in non-prescriptive linguistics if my use of an unusual word is understood and communicative then is it isn’t “wrong.”

  8. New & Improved Libs » Blog Archive » proper English and code Says:

    […] a response to two opposing concerns in linguistics.  Language is the way in which we communicate, as Colin points out.  So if we intend to communicate using English, we need to have a standard language.  […]

  9. Lizzy Says:

    Also, I should do a better job of proofreading my own comments.

  10. adrian Says:

    Colin, language’s use is to communicate. Are you confused by the use of “on” in these situations? Is the understandability compromised by the use there? I’d say no, so there’s no need to continue on to what is “right” or “wrong” or to bring up standards.

    When’s the last time you used the word “peruse” to talk about glancing at something? Did the person understand what you meant? If so, what’s the problem with the fact that the dictionary definition (for now) is to study something in depth?

    As for how big a group should be for something to be considered “correct”, I don’t think about the situation in those terms. It’s all about communication. If the group’s ability to communicate isn’t compromised, I don’t think it’s a problem.

    Also, as I said before, I’ve heard these phrases all over the U.S. San Francisco is not an outlier language group here.

    Overall I think divergent language groups are a good thing. Pittsburghese, complete with its own accent, words and grammar, is a quirky thing that fits perfectly with my image of the city. I even like Swiss German (though, it’s definitely helpful that most Swiss Germans can code switch with Hochdeutsch).

    Lizzy, could you give examples for “whenever”/ “when” switching and my correcting your word usage? From my memory, you correct my language use a lot more than I correct yours. (I should note, though, that you tend to correct my writing, which is fine. Writing is pretty unnatural compared to speaking and requires more structure and rules to remain understandable.)

  11. Colin Says:

    Adrian, I’m tempted to keep arguing with you about these things but I won’t. However, I will leave you with this quote from the OED about “peruse”.

    “Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perh. influenced by the word’s earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness.”

    As far as divergent language groups go, I agree with you: they are a good thing and the languages that are dying out are definitely worth preserving. In fact, I have a particular affinity for some of these languages/dialects. For example, many of my relatives speak what is called “Ulster Scots“, which I really enjoy hearing and wish that I could speak well (but without an Irish accent, it would sound pretty foolish). Ulster Scots is confusing because sometimes it sounds like English and sometimes it is almost unintelligible to someone who is unfamiliar with it. If you’re interested, check out this page, which is a kind of Ulster Scots dictionary with sound clips.

    Lizzy, I think the Scots-Irish are probably to blame for the overuse of “whenever”. My mom almost never says “when”. This page notes that using “whenever” in places in which “when” should be used is common in Northern Ireland (as well as Texas). It’s also common in the Pittsburgh area since the area was populated by immigrants from Northern Ireland and Scotland.

  12. Jesse Says:

    I don’t really have an opinion about what people “should” do, what is “correct”, etc, but certain “wrong” things totally drive me nuts:

    “nauseous” instead of “nauseated” (people almost always get this wrong)
    “begs the question” as an introduction to a question (people get it wrong all the time, and I can rarely think of when it is actually “correct”, so I try to avoid it altogether)

  13. Lizzy Says:

    Exemplum gratis: “Whenever my brother was little he used to have blonde hair.”

    I know people who do this consistently– use whenever in place of when– and I don’t understand where it comes from.

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