English language Etymology

Waiting on … and on and on

Q: Which of these two sentences is correct? “I’ve been waiting for you” or “I’ve been waiting on you.”

A: In the sense of “await,” both “wait on” and “wait for” have long histories of usage in English, both in Britain and in the United States.

In general, “wait for” is more common, but “wait on” is part of mainstream usage in both countries.

We’ve written about this subject before on the blog, but it’s probably time to update the brief earlier post.

As we said three years ago, even though there’s nothing wrong with “wait on,” it does seem more informal than “wait for.” But that may be because we were discouraged from using it as children. Here’s a little more information.

In the US, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “wait on” is “most strongly identified” with speakers in the South and the Midwest, though plenty of Northerners use it too.

In fact, “wait on and wait for cannot be accurately characterized as dialectal, colloquial, regional, or substandard,”  M-W says.

“If it has been the mission of Northern teachers to stamp out wait on, they have failed in more places than just the South,” the dictionary adds.

The M-W editors conclude that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wait on or its occasional variant wait upon. If the use of wait on is natural to you, there is certainly no need to avoid it.”

Another source, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an interesting thought: “One reason for the continuing use of wait on may lie in its being able to suggest protracted or irritating waits better than wait for.

The dictionary gives several examples to support this idea, including one from Charles Lindbergh: “for two days I’ve been waiting on the weather.”

The idea that irritation may be at work here makes sense to us, and it’s likely to strike a chord with anybody who has sat for 45 minutes in a medical office, waiting on the doctor … and on and on.

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