The Grammarphobia Blog

Prepositional phases

Q: I grew up in the states and live in Puerto Rico now. My little girl is learning preposition usage at school, but there seems to be some confusion with “on” and “in.” I believe the proper usage is “I live on James Street,” but the teacher insists “I live in James Street” is correct. He won’t give in and has given the class a test with the wrong answers as right. I would appreciate your comments.

A: This may be a wild guess, but I’ll bet that your daughter’s teacher is British, or at least that he was brought up speaking British English (perhaps in one of the British Virgin Islands).

The correct answer – “in James Street” versus “on James Street” – depends on where you live (or come from). A Briton would say, “I live in James Street” and “My house is in James Street.” But an American would say “I live on James Street” and “My house is on James Street.”

You’ve hit on an area where British and American English part company. The two branches of the language use prepositions differently.

For example, both British and American speakers say “on” or “over” or “during the weekend,” but the British also use (and tend to prefer) “at the weekend.”

British speakers say “near to the river” when talking about physical distances, while Americans simply say “near the river.” On the other hand, Brits use the verb “agree” with no preposition, as in “they agreed a deal”; an American would say “they agreed to [or “on”] a deal.”

British speakers have a different way of saying something encircles something else. They would speak of “a fence about the house,” for example, while Americans would say “around the house.”

In London restaurants, servers wait “at tables”; in New York, servers wait “on tables.”

Neither branch of the language – British English or American English – is right or wrong in how it deals with prepositions. Each has its own set of idioms, and you follow the crowd.

American English is the language of the United States Virgin Islands and British English is the language of the British Virgin Islands. Where does Puerto Rico stand? Here’s a quote from a book called The Other Tongue: English Across Cultures, by Braj B. Kachru:

“Already by the time of the American War of Independence a form of English was current in America that was identifiably, almost proudly, American and not British. This was the beginning of the process by which types of English have proliferated. The British-American differentiation is of particular consequence, since every subsequent form of English has affinities with one of the main branches, BE or AE, rather than the other. In practice this means that English in Canada, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and American Samoa is recognizably related to American English.”

That being the case, your daughter’s teacher should think again. And if you’d like to read more about American versus British English, check out the April 29, 2008, and Oct. 27, 2008, items on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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