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Premises, premises

Q: I’m a DJ and music director at a public-radio station in New Jersey. I’m also a bit of a language nut. Recently some underwriting copy was recorded using the phrase “on premises.” It’s my contention that unless there are multiple locations the phrase should be “on premise.” Help!

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “premises” to refer to a single place, as in the sponsor acknowledgement you mentioned. Although “premises” is a plural noun, it usually refers to one place.

However, “premises” is generally used with “the,” as in “All baking is done on the premises.” The dropping of “the” by the sponsor’s copywriter strikes me as odd.

How did this plural word come to be used in a singular sense? Here’s the story.

The singular noun “premise,” which entered English in the late 1300s, was borrowed from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

It began as a term in logic, meaning “a statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (Now, it’s used more generally to mean a basic assumption or a starting point for reasoning.)

In the 1400s, the plural “premises” took on various meanings in legal terminology. Among other things, it was used as a sort of shorthand for “the aforesaid” or “the foregoing” – that is, things previously stated in a legal document like a deed.

For example, “premises” might refer to already mentioned land or buildings or rental income being bequeathed or deeded or conveyed to someone else.

In the 1600s, as an extension of this legal usage, “premises” (always in the plural) came to mean, according to the OED, “a house or building together with its grounds, outhouses, etc., esp. a building or part of a building that houses a business.”

We’re using “premises” in that way when we say “All work done on the premises” or “No alcohol allowed on the premises.”

While “premises” is a plural noun, it’s often used with a singular verb. So people might write or say “premises is” as well as “premises are,” and “premises was” as well as “premises were.”

As for the usage you mention, “on premises,” that strikes me as a bit show-offy. I’ve noticed a lot of “the”-dropping in broadcasting. Examples: “from bullpen” (as in “The manager is bringing Rivera in from bullpen”), or “on scene” (as in “This is Geraldo, reporting on scene”), or “in studio” (“Now back to Brian in studio”).

Why the missing “the”? Is it an attempt to emulate British usage (“in hospital” and so on)? You may be interested in a blog entry I’ve written about this and other Britishisms.

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