On Accident vs. By Accident

How about we agree on "accidentally" and call it good?

I’ve gone straight to Grammar Girl for help on this one. Hearing or reading the words “on accident” makes me grit my teeth, but here’s a well-rounded argument:

I was lucky enough to find an entire research paper on the topic, published by Leslie Barratt, a professor of Linguistics at Indiana State University.  

According to Barratt’s study, use of the two different versions appears to be distributed by age. Whereas on accident is common in people under 35, almost no one over 40 says on accident. Most older people say by accident. It’s really amazing: the study says that “on is more prevalent under age 10, both on and by are common between the ages of 10 and 35, and by is overwhelmingly preferred by those over 35.” I definitely prefer by accident.

An interesting conclusion from the paper is that although there are some hypotheses, nobody really knows why younger people all over the U.S. started saying on accident instead of by accident. For example, there’s the idea that on accident is parallel to on purpose, but nobody has proven that children all across the country started speaking differently from their parents because they were seeking parallelism. Although I have no proof, I suspect that it must have something to do with nationwide media since it is such a widespread age-related phenomenon. Barney & Friends started airing about 30 years ago, so maybe it’s Barney’s fault! But really, all we can say is that it’s just one of those language things that happens sometimes.

Finally, although there is at least one source stating that on accident is an error (2), and Shelly from Texas asked me to do what I can to ban on accident, Barratt found that there is no widespread stigma associated with saying on accident. In addition, it seems to me that as those kids who say on accident grow up (some of whom are even unaware that by accident is an option, let alone the preferred phrase of grown-ups) on accident will become the main, accepted phrase. By that time, there won’t be enough of us who say by accident left to correct them!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “On Accident vs. By Accident

  1. Kathryn McCary

    I’ve noticed in recent years many examples of what I have come to think of as “abuse of helper words”: use of the incorrect preposition by otherwise literate and well-educated people. I’ve started recording examples of it, and here are the three so far in my file:

    “simultaneously to releasing this information” College Faculty Association Contract

    [in my book, that should be “simultaneously with”]

    “Former friend and alleged victim HG testified this morning that he heard [district administrators] bestowed SR with the picture.” Local newspaper report on widely-followed criminal trial

    [wrong subject and object for the verb bestowed; but even if they were correct, something is bestowed ON, not WITH]

    I have made clear throughout the fiscal crisis that despite our financial difficulties, New York will not shirk from the most fundamental of government obligations the protection of its citizenry and of its communities.
    Mass e-mail from Governor David Paterson, 3/18/10

    [You don’t NEED a preposition following shirk]

    The latter is also an example of what I think of as “phrase confusion.” He couldn’t choose whether to say “will not shrink from” or “will not shirk,” and the two got all tangled up.

    Where does it all come from? Well, bad writing has always been there, but I think that both the prevalence of TV and radio (where you don’t see what is said, and where it may be said on the fly) and the ease with which we can now communicate in writing has led to increased uncertainty and carelessness.

    • Yes, one of my other favorites which crops up quite often is “try and [do something]”, e.g., “try and catch me.” The “and” should be “to.” That makes me nuts!

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