Friday, July 31, 2009

on accident

Looking through my backlog of requests, I found this one from Neal Whitman, the Literal-Minded Linguist:
I've recently gotten a a few interesting comments on a post from a year ago [well, more than that by now--ed.]. In one of the comments to this post, I quote an ADS-list exchange between you and Ron Butters regarding a semantic distinction between 'on accident' and 'by accident'. What's interesting about the more recent comments, from two Australians and one UK resident, is that 'on accident' seems to be particular to US English. Do you hear 'on accident' from people where you live?

I've chosen this one to reply to because I can answer it in a word: 'no'. I'd call on accident a non-standard Americanism, and I refer you to Neal's discussion and the comments on it for much further rumination on the expression.

But really, I blog tonight in order to accidentally on purpose have the opportunity to thank the readers of this blog for your votes for the Lexiophiles Top Language Blogs 2009--and for all your support over the past few years. I'm absolutely (BrE) gobsmacked to find this blog at the number one spot in the 'Language professionals' category and 14th overall. Wow. I'm hono(u)red to be on the same list as the other nominees. Click on the links to see the full lists.


This blog would be nothin'/nuffink without its loyal readership--whom I've come to think of as a kind of extended family. The kind that are likely to tell you when you look fatter than the last time they saw you and that they liked your old haircut better and to say that they are planning to disown you for the way you voted in the last election (they won't), but who will also take an interest in what you're up to, help out when they can and stand up for you when you need an ally. I'm a couple of posts away from number 300, and was planning on saying something like that when I hit that milestone--but why wait? Thanks for sticking around, reading, commenting and sending me your ideas, observations and anecdotes.

Now, good night!

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

We use the term "on" accident. I live in WA State.

Pixie said...

From Washington, D.C., a 30-ish American woman -- I would never use 'on accident.' To me is sounds like a Britishism, but another poster is calling from the Northwest.

Perhaps just a regionalism? I honestly never, ever hear this usage where I live, or when I lived in Colorado or California.

Tulsa Gentleman said...

I can recall reading something that used "on accident but I do not ever recall hearing it said. We are strictly "by accident" here. But then I'm in Oklahoma.

Dougal said...

I can confirm that "on accident" also occurs in Scottish English.

Jo said...

I've never heard "on accident" and I'm English English.

therekinator said...

From Leicester, England, and I never hear 'on accident', it's always 'by accident'. 'On accident' sounds very odd to me.

Faldone said...

Just a WAG, but it sounds like it was formed by analogy to "on purpose". Does that mean we have to start looking for instances of "by purpose"?

lynneguist said...

I really recommend that folks read Neal's blog post on it (before commenting)...he answers a lot of your (implicit) questions.

Kel said...

"On accident" is big (especially with kids, probably because they commit more mischief) in the Midwest-- I live in Chicago.

Faldone said...

Did a little research on by purpose and found it is out there, but not all that common. I also ran into this collection of observations on and diatribes against on accident.

Graham said...

'On accident' does sound a little odd to my ears but I hear it commonly enough not to do a complete double take (Sheffield, England).

I think it's worth mentioning 'purposely', presumably by analogy with 'accidentally' as in "You did that purposely". It feels like this occurs in the same ratio to 'on purpose' as 'on accident' to 'by accident' but not necessarily said by the same people?

Suzannah said...

I think of it as something kids say but generally grow out of - I don't hear it much from adults (Am-E speaker from New England)

David said...

I grew up in Connecticut and never heard 'on accident' until going to college in Pennsylvania.

Shaun Clarkson said...

Congratulations on the win Lynne, though following the link to the other successful blogs has given me even more opportunities for displacement activity...

Andy JS said...

It makes one wonder how "on purpose" ever came into being. It should surely be "by purpose" or "with purpose" or some others by certainly not "on purpose. For some reason this discussion reminds me of a few other non-standard phrases such as "same difference", and also of the word "ain't". It would be interesting to know how and where those words are used differently in Britain and America (if they are).

Cameron said...

I'm pretty gobsmacked by this entire post! I am absolutely certain I have NEVER come across "on accident" before and it sounds extremely strange, not to mention wrong, to me. I wonder what part of Scotland Douglas is from, as I am from Glasgow and, as I say, have never come across this usage. And, thinking about it, I've watched, of course, quite a lot of American movies and TV series, and don't remember ever hearing it there, either.

Cameron said...

*Not Douglas but Dougal. Sorry.

Fran Hill said...

My daughter-in-law (British) says 'by purpose' and we have teased her about it for ages. I will reassure her that there is a debate on a linguistics blog about it. This will be great news for her!

Lindenwood said...

The only time I've ever heard "on accident" is from my 4yo, who uses it as the opposite of "on purpose"!

James said...

I was born in California in 1971 and lived there till 1984, when my family moved to New Jersey. Soon after we arrived, I used "on accident" and my new friend was shocked. It was immediately clear that "by accident" would have been better, and I thought I had just made a slip. I don't think I've ever used it since, and I don't think I've ever heard adults use it.

All this to vote for the something-children-grow-out-of theory.

Dr. Tom Roche said...

Never heard it, not anywhere in New England, NYS, or even in the midwest or Florida. Judging by the posts here, of folks who have heard it or do use it, any chance it is a Germanism?

Roger Owen Green said...

Albany, NY - never heard "on accident". But I HAVE heard "gobsmacked", and it especially shows up in print.
Congrats on the award1

bill said...

Growing up in Massachusetts, you were reprimanded for saying "on accident" it was considered bad grammar...so up until just now, I ALSO considered it simply bad grammar.

lynneguist said...

In Linguistics, we don't say 'bad grammar'. We say 'non-standard variety'! :)

Picky said...

Well now, Lynne - but you do say "ungrammatical", don't you?

lynneguist said...

@Picky: Only if it's something that's not possible in the language--i.e. no one says it. Of course, you could say that something is ungrammatical in the standard variety of English--though that's fudging the issue a bit.

Cameron said...

Dr. Tom, the German would be "zufällig" for coincidentally or "durch Unfall" for having an accident. The latter of these translates back into English as THROUGH accident, so I think it unlikely that "on accident" comes through that route, although the main word for "on" in German is used a lot more than the English equivalent, so it wouldn't be impossible that it originated as someone using the wrong preposition (something that all non native speakers of a language are prone to). However it seems to me that making a parallel with "on purpose" is far more likely.

Dana said...

I'm American. My husband and I, late forties/early fifties, say "by accident", but my kids, now in their early twenties, say "on accident', especially my son, and have done so since we lived in the Midwest when they were school age. My niece and nephew, from Texas, say "on accident" as well. I think it may be age-related. The back-formation from "on purpose" seems very plausible.

I was watching the British TV show "Spaced" last night, and Simon Pegg said "by accident". Isn't he from the southwest part of England? But that show was filmed back in 1999 -- ancient history, practically.

lynneguist said...

@Dana, you'd expect Pegg and any other Englishperson to say 'by accident'. It's only 'on accident' that is geographically restricted.

Ruby in Montreal said...

Congratulations on the honour, and thank you very much for this blog! I ran across you "by accident" while searching for something about tea drinking, I believe.

I will definitely be watching for more posts dealing with Canadian English - even better if you write about anglophones who spend a significant portion of their lives working/studying/socializing in French!

Cheers from across the pond!
Ruby

lynneguist said...

@Ruby, I can't say I'll be posting about CanE--not being a Canadian or in Canada--but Canadian discussions are always welcome in the comments!

Anonymous said...

I have heard the term "on accident" here in the Midwest (Ohio) in recent years and it drives me mad. To me it sounds uneducated, childish. I also cringe at "lit it on fire", which I've also heard in recent years, as opposed to "set it on fire" or "set it afire".

Anonymous said...

Someone did a research paper on "on accident" and found that it was fairly common among under 35s in the U.S., and the preferred form for under 10s. I looked it up because my 9 year old granddaughter does it. Google shows 1,180,000 hits for "on accident"- some of those are discussions about it like this one, but it's still enough to say it's a variant, not just something kids grow out of.

Anonymous said...

I take it back about the Google hits. Many of them are "head on accident" and others are using "on" to mean "about". But there are still a number of usages that fit this discussion- one person says he deleted some email "on accident", etc.

Glynmis said...

Apparently, it's been a while since this conversation took place, but as I just surfed in, I'll add my two cents. I grew up in NJ and everyone I knew said "by accident." I lived in FL and NM for years and also only heard "by accident." We moved to the midwest, Ohio in particular, and now my children all say "on accident." It drives me crazy!

Anonymous said...

Once I started hearing Snooki say "on accident", I said...only idiots must be using this term.