And here's the start of a letter from American reader Emmet:
Was struck by this example from the Economist as something that could be highly ambiguous to AmE native speakers:Ah, on. As John Algeo writes, "This preposition is one that has many differences in use between British and American English". So, let's try to get through a few of those here.
"Correction: we accidentally published an incorrect set of figures for the percentage change on one week ago. This was corrected on January 22nd 2010."Another example is a headline from the Guardian: "University applications up a fifth on last year"
The on that Emmet's observed here is indeed a BrEism meaning 'in comparison to'. The OED definition goes like this:
Indicating comparison with a standard, originally a favourable one; (Finance) compared with, in relation to (a previous financial situation, figure, etc.), esp. in up or down on.They trace the usage to the 18th century--though the more modern examples involving numbers don't show up till the late 19th century. In AmE in these cases, one would have to do something else, such as
Emmet's message continued:
There's a second and maybe (?) related usage that I've seen in discussions of the standings/league tables of sport(s) teams, like "Humble Lions slipped two spots to 10th on 27 points", or "After defeating Everton, Manchester United are on 15 points."This doesn't have the sense of comparison that the last one has, so I wouldn't call them related. In AmE, one could say with here--that is, the teams have that many points for the season. These relate to another UK institution: league tables. In this case, the league tables are for a literal league--in (BrE) football/(AmE) soccer (where the term league table originated in the early 20th century). Americans would call these rankings or standings. Nowadays, the British have league tables for lots of things--schools, universities, companies, pension funds...
Some temporal ons are often pointed out to me. AmE speakers can do something Wednesday or on Wednesday but BrE speakers need the on. When speaking of future weekdays, BrE speakers are much more likely to say a week on Wednesday where AmE speakers are much more likely to say a week from Wednesday. (And then there's Wednesday week--which I've already discussed, along with some of the other things in this paragraph.)
A lot of the other on differences are associated with particular other words--verbs or nouns that precede or follow on. I can't do those all here--they'll come up (BrE) as and when/(AmE) if and when.† But looking through the OED's entry on on, I note a few other things:
- In sport(s), on to express the relationship between opposing players (e.g. one-on-one) is described as 'chiefly N. Amer.'.
- The use of on with closed means of transport (e.g. I went there on the train) is originally AmE, but generally accepted as common English now. (This followed the common English on horseback, on foot--it was only the 'closed means of transport' that ever differed.)
- With [name] on drums/guitar/bass/etc. (no verb of 'playing', no the after the on) is another originally AmE usage that is now used by performers all over.
- [This one's amended since David Crosbie's comment:] Another American-invented sense (or pair of senses) is: 'Addicted to or under the influence of (a drug or drugs); regularly using or receiving (medication, treatment, etc.).' (OED) so... He's on drugs. She's on antibiotics.
- And we talked about on the street versus in the street back here.
P.S. I had thought that I'd be blogging a lot more now that we're on a five-week teaching break, but we're about to start the third week of it, and I've only managed two because the deadlines don't stop when the students leave. Alas. Must try harder!
†But AmE is not as likely as BrE to use its phrase as a stand-alone. In AmE I'm much more comfortable saying if and when they are topical or something like that.