The Grammarphobia Blog

An accidental tourist

Q: I began hearing “on accident” as a substitute for “accidentally” when my children were in school. Lately, I hear it on television and cringe every time. I actually get a mental flash of someone standing on top of a car wreck. Am I being too picky or is the phrase as unacceptable as I feel that it is?

A: The last person to ask us about “on accident” was a New Zealander who said it was a common expression in her country. She wondered whether the usage had been inherited from New Zealand’s colonial forebears.

From what we’ve been able to find out, “on accident” isn’t likely to have come from Britain, where it’s quite uncommon. Many Americans also use “on accident,” though the traditional expression in the US is “by accident” (or “accidentally”). 

We found no citations for “on accident” in the Oxford English Dictionary. But there are many for “by accident.” The expression was first recorded in 1490 as “by accydente”; later, Shakespeare used “by accident” in Cymbeline (circa 1611). 

Dr. Leslie Barratt, a professor of linguistics at Indiana State University, has done research into the use of “on accident” versus “by accident,” and she was kind enough to send us a copy of her study, published in 2006.

As she told Pat in an email, “What I found was an age gradation – that as age increased from elementary school children to adults, the likelihood of ‘on’ increased. Since this study was run a while ago (most data collected 1997-1998), you can add about 12 years to the ages.”

Dr. Barratt surveyed people in different parts of the country, ranging widely in age and coming from a variety of economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds. But no factors apart from age made any difference in their responses.

Her findings: “For both male and female respondents, ‘on’ is more prevalent under age 10, both ‘on’ and ‘by’ are common between the ages of 10 and 35, and ‘by’ is overwhelmingly preferred by those over 35.” 

Assuming those preferences have held up in the intervening 12 years, then “on accident” is now preferred  by people under 22, “by accident” by people over 47, and both expressions are common among those in between (22-47).

Where is this happening? Everywhere in the US, it would seem.

Dr. Barratt’s survey was done in Indiana, Michigan, California, and Georgia. And she says that linguists on the American Dialect Society mailing list have reported instances of “on accident” in 17 other states: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

When did this start? “When ‘on accident’  first appeared is not answered in the present study,” she says, “but there are several indications that the form is at least 25 years old (i.e. dates back to at least the late 1970s).”

And why did it start? Some commentators have suggested that “on accident” is a conflation of the expressions “by accident”  and “on purpose.” This sounds plausible, but there’s a catch.

As Dr. Barratt writes, “In many cases, younger speakers were even unaware of the existence of ‘by accident.’ ”  

Another theory we’ve come across is that “on accident” is a mishearing of “an accident,” as in: “I didn’t do it on purpose! It was an accident!” Well, it’s an idea, but we may never know for sure.

“The reasons for particular language changes are rarely one dimensional, and this is no exception,” Dr. Barratt writes. “Although it happened right before our eyes, it seems to have merely happened ‘on accident.’ ”

Are you being too picky? Well, this does seem to be a case of English changing before our very eyes – and ears. Check back in a few years.

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