Q: Does a language student “work with” or “work on” causative form? I prefer “on,” but some colleagues insist on “with.” It seems to me that one works “with” a person and “on” a subject of study.
A: We think “work on” or “work with” would be OK here, but surprisingly we can’t find either usage in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).
The two dictionaries do mention “work on” in their entries for “work,” but not in the sense you’re asking about. The only meaning given is to try to influence or persuade somebody, as in “She worked on my sympathies.”
However, the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the verb “work” lists the verbal phrase “work on” in the sense you’re interested in: to make something a subject of study, occupation, literary treatment, and so on.
But (again surprisingly) we can’t find any mention in the OED’s “work” entry for “work with” used in this sense. We see examples for working with one’s head or with another person, but not with a subject.
Nevertheless, this meaning of “work with” is quite common now. We googled “work with English,” for example, and got more than 2.2 million hits. We got more than 1.2 million for the “work on” version.
This suggests that both of these usages will probably show up before long in the OED as well as in standard dictionaries like American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s.
Check out our books about the English language