English language Etymology Grammar

“In” a paper vs. “on” the Net

Q: Why is something “in” a newspaper but “on” the Internet, or “in” a movie” but “on” television?

A: The prepositions “in” and “on” have had many different meanings since they showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, though they were sometimes used interchangeably in Old English.

In the simplest terms, “in” refers to being within a given space while “on” refers to being on top of it. However, these two words are often used idiomatically—that is, in unusual or distinctive ways.

H.W. Fowler, in The King’s English, says there are so many idiomatic uses of prepositions that it would be impossible for dictionaries, grammar books, or usage guides to cite all of them.

We won’t use Fowler, though, as an excuse to avoid answering your question.

When the preposition “in” entered English sometime before the year 700, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to being within an actual place, such as a house, a forest, a cave, and so on.

By the late 800s, though, people began using “in” more loosely to refer to being within things like a book or the writings of an author. The preposition is being used in this sense when we say something is “in” a movie or an article or a newspaper.

But why, you ask, do we say something is “on” the Internet or “on” television?

In early Old English, according to the OED, the preposition “on” meant to be on the upper surface of a physical thing.

Over the years, though, people began using the preposition figuratively to refer to a judge “on the bench,” a truant “on the carpet,” a job applicant “on tenterhooks,” and so on.

In the late 19th century, English speakers started using “on” to refer to a medium of communications—the telephone at first, then radio, television, and the Internet.

The earliest written example of this usage in the OED is from Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary (1882): “Telephonist, a person versed in telephony, or who operates on the telephone.”

The next OED citation, from a 1929 letter by the English artist Roger Eliot Fry, refers to being on the radio: “I have still two ‘talks’ hanging over me—one at the Athenaeum Club and one on the wireless.”

And here’s a television example, from Up Your Banners, a 1969 novel by Donald E. Westlake: “The beautician hollered from the living room, ‘Leona, come quick! You’re on the TV!’ ”

In case you’d like to read more, we had a post in 2009 about “on” television versus “at” a movie house. And we had an item in 2008 about some of the idiomatic use of prepositions.

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