English language Uncategorized

“Wait” watching

Q: I’ve always thought that one “waits for” someone or something (a friend, a bus, etc.), and that a waiter “waits on” someone. These days, however, “waiting on” seems to be used more and more instead of “waiting for,” as in this sentence: “I’m waiting on my mom to pick me up.” We even have the John Mayer song “Waiting on the World to Change.” Is this incorrect? Was it ever incorrect? Has common usage made it acceptable?

A: To my ears, “wait on” someone sounds more colloquial or informal than “wait for” him. But for centuries, one of the meanings of “wait on” has been “wait for.” Here’s a 1694 example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “We were forced to wait on him above half an hour, before he came from underneath the Ice.”

Even today, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists one of the meanings of the phrasal verb “wait on” as “to await.”

In short, “wait on” in the sense of “wait for” is long established and there’s nothing unacceptable about it. But you might want to save it for informal or casual usage.

[Update: We ran a later post on June 13, 2010.]

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