on on

*ruffling around in the email bag*

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:

"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"
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. 

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 Five times one fifth more applications than last year or the percentage change since last week. You might be able to use from here too--but as far as I can tell (on the web--my corpus access isn't working tonight), that's still more common in BrE than AmE.

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.


  1. There is a BrE usage of one-on-one in sport that I've not heard in AmE - use as a noun. "He had a one-on-one but couldn't score" is implicitly a one-on-one with the opposing team's goalkeeper (in football).

    One could equally have "they [the team] had four one-on-ones but only scored once."

  2. The three middle examples given - ie. "on the train", "on drums", "on drugs" - have always been used in the UK as long as I have been aware (which is the last 20 years or so).

    Most people I know (in the UK) use "at the weekend" but I have heard "on the weekend" being used by some people. I don't know whether there's a regional difference. I know "on the weekend" is the normal usage in America.

  3. 20 years isn't very long, Andy!

    As I say there, they are of AmE origin, but are now accepted as common English.

    I think AmE speakers are most likely to say 'this weekend' if they're talking about the nearest one, rather than using a prepositional phrase. But, yes, 'on' rather than 'at' where a preposition is needed.

  4. Let's be clear:

    University applications up a fifth on last year = 120 applications for every 100 last year

    Five times more applications than last year = 500 applications for every 100 last year.

    As for the others:

    After defeating Everton, Manchester United are on 15 points.

    This is by no means specific to sports. In fact, I believe it's more likely to be heard relating to scores in quiz programmes.

    • I associate one-on-one with discussion and teaching situations more than sporting duels. OK, a stylistic variant of one-to-one but with the same absence of opposition.

    I'm on the train is famously what loudmouths say into their mobile phones. I don't think there any other preposition I could use. In the train would cover only a few very unusual contexts. By train can only be used to describe a journey.

    On drums/guitar/bass/etc seems not to refer to the instrument but to the part, since we also say on vocals.

    Another American innovation is using it before the names of intoxicants, to indicate intoxication/addiction. He's on drugs.

    I associate this use with all drugs: He's on antibiotics, She's on the pill, Like a hamster on steroids. And, related to this on a diet, on bread and water, on reduced rations.

    I'm a British speaker, by the way.

  5. David--
    "Whoops" on the 1/5-5x comparison--I wasn't paying enough attention.

    The 'on' with drugs, antibiotics, etc. Yes, that's all AmE, and I should've represented it as so. The OED definition is: 'colloq. (orig. U.S.). Addicted to or under the influence of (a drug or drugs); regularly using or receiving (medication, treatment, etc.).' I only mentioned the first half of that.

    I'm going to go back and correct these things...

    As for sports versus quizzes--ok, then. Games. Competitions. Things where one gets points.

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  7. @Lynne:

    You probably didn't mean to say this, but it looks as if you're claiming that the word "soccer" is a 20th century American coinage. In fact, as most SbaCL readers probably know, it originated in 19th century England.

  8. (Southern BrE, 50-something) Yes, soccer was short for Association football and rugger for Rugby - one went to the rugger at Twickers and, presumably, the soccer at Wembers. I think 1920s rather than 19th century, but public schoolboys were still playing "rugger" well into the 1970s. "Soccer" is now largely American.

    As for "percentage down on last week", I always assumed that was an AmE usage that was now standard! Interesting to hear that it isn't.

    Definitely "at the weekend" as opposed to "on Sunday" - "on the weekend" strikes me as very American!

  9. "the percentage change on one week ago."

    Just to make sure I understand... the "on" in this case means about the same thing as "since", correct?

    I apologize if that's not right. For some reason, my American brain absolutely refuses to make sense out of that combination of words.

  10. @Mrs Redboots:

    soccer was short for Association football and rugger for Rugby - one went to the rugger at Twickers and, presumably, the soccer at Wembers. I think 1920s rather than 19th century,

    No, 19th century.

    "Soccer" is now largely American.

    American, yes, but also Canadian, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and South African. The curious notion that "soccer" is to be despised as an alleged Americanism seems largely confined to Britain, although even there it can be found in the national media.

  11. Trent

    "the percentage change on one week ago."

    Just to make sure I understand... the "on" in this case means about the same thing as "since", correct?

    For me, substituting since makes the phrase too ambiguous for comfort..

    Straight the percentage change leaves the hearer/reader to speculate Percentage of what?

    By contrast The percentage change on last week makes it perfectly clear (to us Brits) that we're talking about a percentage of last week's figure.

  12. @vp: Oh, you're right! Clearly, I needed to edit this one better. I am making a correction in the post (in red)--thanks very much for your help!

  13. I've noticed an unusual AmE usage of "on" that has emerged recently, where the word is used to mean "affected" or "forced." As in the phrase "she's always on." It probably derives from phrases like "on television," "on stage" or "on camera," although it may also refer to the notion of something mechanical being "on." Or perhaps "putting on an act." No idea if it extends to BrE.

  14. Lynne

    I needed to edit this one better.

    I can only say I should have edited... here. Is this idiolectal/dialectal or is it a real British/American grammatical difference?

  15. Something I've been pondering is the American use of "on" a holiday or similar special day. For instance, "What are you doing on Christmas?"

    Is this not only an AmE thing, but a regional AmE thing? 'Cos I grew up in the US and it sounds alien to me.

  16. @David--Well, I can't say that I'm editing myself any better right now, so I wouldn't take my 'I needed to' as a supreme example of standard, formal American English. But I suspect that part of the reason that it sounds odd to you is that AmE speakers are much happier to use the preterit (-ed) for the recent past, whereas your preferred form involves a perfect. (There's an old post on that.)

  17. Lynne

    I'm perfectly happy with the Past Simple/Preterite. It's the unreality of the past that isn't in my grammar. I can only say, for example

    I'm sorry I'm late. I needed to check my emails

    with the clear implication that I did check them.

    I always taught my foreign students that should have etc were Past Perfect in form but identical in function and semantics to Past Simple in IN THIS WORLD. They were twice past: once for IN ANOTHER WORLD and once for PAST TIME.


    I used the same formula to explain

    She had left at nine o'clock'.

    In short,

    PAST TIME IN THIS WORLD I needed to edit it
    PAST TIME IN ANOTHER WORLD I should have edited it

  18. Am I right in thinking that there's also a British usage of 'on' in reference to what people earn? As in, he's on GBP30,000 a year. Whereas Americans would mostly (I think) say, he makes $48,493 a year (at today's exchange rate).

  19. @David C: ok. I am not totally comfortable with my own 'I needed', as I indicated...but I can say 'I needed to do that, but didn't get around to it' as well as 'I needed to do that, so it's good that I did'. It's very tricky to check this kind of thing in a corpus (and my interface isn't working well at the moment), so I'll just have to leave it for now.

    @David L: Yes, that 'on' seems to be the same as 'on 27 points'.

  20. And in the US sporting world we have yet another "on", as in "he has 20 home runs on the season" or "the Red Sox have 5 hits on the night" or "Boston has 2 runs on 5 hits".

  21. Another difference I've noticed is in mathematics. I've heard Brits say "One on x" when Americans would say "One over x."

  22. Listening to a quiz score on the radio today, I realised that in my speech Joe Bloggs with twenty points and Joe Bloggs on twenty points are not always interchangeable.

    On twenty points is OK for the latest scores. But the final scores must be expressed as with twenty points.

    This may be a peculiarity of my speech, of course, or of the speech of my generation.

  23. Really good observation, David C--I think you're right. 'On 12 points' is where you are at the moment--it's expected to change.

  24. For sports "on":

    My idiolect of AmE includes, "Stuck on 9 wins" as idiomatic. This seems related to the BrE sense, but not identical.

    For the time sense:

    I have "year on year change" as idiomatic, if not exactly common. Again, this seems related but not identical.

  25. The rhetorical question "are you on drugs?" must mean "are you high?" rather than "are you a junkie?", for me at least.

    The original Football League was only the most successful of many late-Victorian organisations hosting annual round-robin tournaments; the were other Conferences, Combinations, etc. But "league" = "round-robin" just as "cup" = "knockout" (= "single-elimination") after the FA Cup.

  26. My message here is on a random topic, sorry, but I'm interested in verb patterns, and I couldn't find any posts here on them. Wikipedia lists a variety of them, differing in the US and Britain. It stated that both countries vary on their use of verb patterns (like walking/like to walk) depending on the situation. The books that I use to teach it only cover a few verbs, and only teach the British versions. As an American, I'm curious to see any examples of these situations, and how the two countries vary.

  27. T Arthur: I recommend John Algeo's book British or American English.

    You're welcome to request new topics via the email link--though it usually takes me a long time to respond on the blog, I usually respond by email quite quickly.

  28. @Richard Gadsden - The use of "one-on-one" in sports here generally means a game where only two people are playing against each other. You can play basketball "one-on-one", usually on a half court. The idea of just one player going up against the goalkeeper (which is common in ice hockey) is something we call "a breakaway".

  29. The rhetorical question "are you on drugs?" must mean "are you high?" rather than "are you a junkie?", for me at least.

    In some English fiction from the earlyish 20th century, "he is on the telephone" means that his house is connected to the telephone system, not that he is using it at the moment.

  30. I've recently been pondering the American usage of "on" with a holiday or similar special day. For example, "What will you be doing on Christmas?" In the UK this would be either "at" or "for" Christmas (with subtle differences).

    I was raised in the US, but this still sounds foreign to my ear. Is it a regional thing?

  31. What about "on the station"? I hear this all the time at train stations and as an AmE speaker, I keep picturing passengers standing on top of the station, not on the platforms.

  32. Kelli

    What I suspect you don't hear in Britain is the term train station.

  33. What about "off the mark" when related to football(soccer).
    In BrE, "so and so off the mark" in a game means he scored, where as AmE readers would interpret it as a player missing the goal.

  34. Chico

    For me He's off the mark in the context of scoring could only mean that he'd scored his (or his team's) first goal.

  35. "Off the mark" is one of the most common ways of describing a batsman's first run in the game of cricket.

    I can't remember having ever heard anyone say "on the station" here in central England. Maybe it's said in other parts of the UK.

  36. @Andy JS
    With "on the station", I'm not sure if I've heard it much in actual conversation, but it's a common feature of the platform announcements (eg., "Smoking is not permitted in the train or on the station"). I'm from East Sussex.

  37. I can confirm that they say 'on the station' in the recorded messages at Brighton. A Southern Trains thing?

    1. That's probably because most travellers, when not in a train, are standing on the platforms waiting for one, or are in the lavatory.

  38. I'm from Seaford, so my primary association is with Southern trains - I can't remember whether I've heard it while using other train companies or not.

  39. And I'm quite convinced that in my youth they used to say "The train now standing on platform 4 is the 14:45 to London Victoria", or whatever - but I notice they now say "At platform 4" which is much duller!

  40. Your description of off the mark(BrE) seems to match AmE on the board.

    I'm also reminded of horse racing commentary, "And they're off!"

    Basketball is more popular than soccer or ice hockey in the USA so one-one would be used in a fast break situation, but when applied to hockey or soccer it would ignore the goalie/keeper. Having only the goalie to beat would be a one-on-none.

  41. I remember an elderly lady on the train I was travelling on getting quite agitated because she had "left a suitcase on York station". Perhaps her age is relevant, and this expression has fallen out of use?

    I suppose if you're waiting for a train you could be on the station, at the station or in the station.

    From Lynne's original post, "I'll meet you Saturday" or "See you Monday" doesn't sound odd to me as a British speaker. No need for an "on" in informal speech. Perhaps this is a regional thing?

    I've never heard of "she's always on" in the context referred to above. I've only heard "she's on" or "I'm on" used to mean a woman's time of the month (BrE).

  42. BrE. On the front of buses, I usually see “not in service”, but some bus companies use “ not on service”.

    Re on the station. I find this quite old fashioned, and never something most people said. Like “I’ve lost my train” instead of “I’ve missed my train”, or “bored of” rather than “bored with”.

  43. 'Bored of' never sounds correct to my ear, though 'bored to tears' is often heard in the UK.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)