The Grammarphobia Blog

An ear for idiomatic English

Q: I teach a course in law school on drafting legal documents. In a matrimonial agreement on holiday parenting, I’d write “in even (or odd) numbered calendar years,” but a lot of my students would use “on.” Is there a preferred way of writing this? I have no idea how to spell “sprachgefuhl,” but is this an example of it?

A: As we’ve written many times on the blog, the uses of prepositions in English are very slippery and idiomatic, and they’ve been that way from the start.

Today, people generally use “in” with years and “on” with days.

Examples: “in 2001,” “in the year we met,” “on Tuesday,” “on the 27th,” “on Feb. 22, 1900.” (There are exceptions, of course, like “later in the day.”)

But over the course of their very long histories, both “in” and “on” have been used to pin down years. And, as citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show, the two have often traded places in time-related usages.

Since early Old English, the OED says, “on” has been used for “indicating the day or part of the day when an event takes place.”

And it still is. In fact, people even now say “on yesterday” and “on tomorrow” in some dialects of American and Irish English, a practice we discussed in a posting a couple of years ago.

In the past, “on” was often used where we would now say “in.” The OED has citations like “on thaem ilcan geare” (on the same year), “on wintra & on sumer” (on winter & on summer), and “on the day-time.” 

As for “in,” it was formerly used to indicate times in phrases where we would now use a different preposition, like  “on” or “at.” 

Here’s “in” used for “on,” in a citation from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “In a thores-dai it was” (In a Thursday it was).

And here’s “in” for “at,” in a citation from Shakespeare’s Othello (written before 1616): “The Duke in Councell? In this time of the night?”

So while most people would join you in saying “in” even or odd numbered calendar years, the practice isn’t necessarily universal.

And, yes, you might say this is an example of “sprachgefühl” (you missed the umlaut), a feeling for language, especially an ear for idiomatic usage.

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