Etymology Usage

On “premises”

Q: In 2008, you advised a DJ that it’s OK to use “premises” to describe a singular location, but you didn’t go so far as to say “premise” would be incorrect. This use of the singular “premise” REALLY GRATES on my ears.

A: In that blog posting, we didn’t tell the DJ in so many words that “on premise” is incorrect. But it is, as he probably gathered, because we said the noun is always plural—“premises”—when it means a location or place of business.

In this sense, “premises” is often used with a singular verb, so one can properly write either “premises is” or “premises are.”

In explaining the noun’s history, we said the singular form, “premise,” entered English in the late 1300s as a term in logic meaning a statement or proposition.

In the following century, the plural form “premises” became a term in legal usage. Among other things, it was shorthand for land or buildings mentioned earlier in a deed or other legal document.

As a result of its use in legal terminology, the Oxford English Dictionary says, people in the early 1600s began using “premises” (always in the plural) to mean “a house or building together with its grounds, outhouses, etc., esp. a building or part of a building that houses a business.”

To this day, the word should be plural in this sense, according to the OED as well as standard dictionaries. So “premises” is the word businesses should use when they mean their location or site, and that brings us to another point.

We suspect that the familiar phrase “on site” has led to the use of “on premises” (sometimes written even more elliptically as “on premise”).

But “premises” is generally used with “the,” as in “All baking is done on the premises.” (A Google search found 127 million hits for “on the premises” versus 15.4 million for “on premises.”)

Is it OK to drop the article? Well, Pat finds “on premises” off-putting, but Stewart isn’t put off by it.

This tendency to drop articles isn’t unusual in broadcasting, but Pat wishes it would go away.

In a previous posting , she mentioned examples like “from bullpen” (as in “The manager is bringing Rivera in from bullpen”), or “on scene” (as in “This is Anderson, reporting on scene”), or “in studio” (“Now back to Brian in studio”).

Readers of our blog have written to comment about each of these usages.

We suppose it’s possible that broadcasters adopted this habit from British usage (as they adopted the now ubiquitous “gone missing”).

When we hear Americans dropping their articles, we’re reminded of a humorous piece in the L.A. Times. The writer walked into a restaurant and spotted a friend, who asked her to join him “at table.” The writer replied, “Let’s just sit at booth.”

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