Saturday, October 10, 2009

Did you do it by accident or on accident?

It's hard enough teaching Cambridge students differences between British English and American English, especially in the use of prepositions ('at the weekend' vs. 'on the weekend'; 'in hospital' vs. 'at the hospital'). Now, apparently, in addition to regional differences in American English, I may need to be aware of generational differences in prepositions. Today NPR's (National Public Radio) 'A Way with Words' discussed the finding that 'by accident' (accidentally) is used by people who are 30 years of age or older while the under-30 age group sometimes uses 'on accident' to mean the same thing.

Good grief! At this rate of 'evolution,' will all the prepositional phrases that I use and teach sound odd to the next generation? Where did 'on accident' come from? Is the change related to the expression 'on purpose'? The word wizards on NPR didn't have an answer to this either....


Harry Campbell said...

Yes, prepositional phrases seem to date rapidly. I notice that the American "on the street", "on Such-and-Such Street" are starting to oust the traditional British "in the street" etc.

Phrases like "in hospital" and "at school/church" are useful in that they tell you not just where someone is but what they're doing. He's in hospital means he's a patient, not working there; "at school" means you're there as a pupil or teacher, not to fix the roof; "in church" means attending an act of worship. He's still at school means he's still a pupil, even if he's on a beach at the moment; and "in school" used to mean in lessons, so you could be at or in the school but not necessarily "in school".

Evelyn said...

I've been teaching Cambridge prep courses so long, I'm starting to use expressions like 'full stop' and 'queue' instead of 'period' and 'line'. Here in the USA, we also distinguish between 'at' and 'in' school. The big difference for us when we use 'hospital' is that we put 'the' in front of the preposition. I'm at 'the' hospital or in 'the' hospital (I'm a patient there). Guess we're still at some level two countries separated by a common language... ;-)