“By Accident” or “On Accident”?

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I just received this email:

“My two adult daughters and my husband and I have been going round and round on this one for many years now. He and I have always said “by accident,” while my daughters and most of their age group tend to say “on accident.” I know this is incorrect, because it just is, but what’s the official word on this usage? Is it just a generational thing? Thanks for any insight.” ~Ramona

Good question, and one I hadn’t thought of. If I can use my grammatical powers to restore harmony to a divided family, well, it’s all been worthwhile, right?

I started my research with a Google n-gram search. I’ve done this before — it shows you the frequency of words and word groups in publications going back to 1900 or earlier. Here’s what that turned up:

It seems to support Ramona’s claim that “by accident” is correct. “On accident” is found in publication only rarely and that is consistent throughout the century. This suggests its use is anomalous. It’s a little interesting that the use of “by accident” has been in steady decline. If we saw a simultaneous rise in the use of “on accident,” I’d say it was meaningful to our discussion. As we don’t see anything like that, I’ll assume it just means people don’t like writing “by accident” as much as they used to.

But before Ramona starts an end zone celebration, I need to make a few points. First, what gets published and how people actually speak are two different things. Another interesting stop in my research journey was at the Grammar Girl’s website. She addressed this same question back in 2007. She cites a study on this topic by Leslie Barratt, a professor of linguistics at Indiana State University ¹.

What this study showed is that people born before 1970 consistently use “by accident,” while younger people tend to prefer “on accident.” This seems consistent with the situation in Ramona’s family. The study also shows that older folks not only say “by accident,” but are more inclined to insist on its correctness. Younger folks surveyed were more inclined to accept either expression.

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So, although published works don’t reflect it, spoken use and popular acceptance of “on accident” has been on the rise since about 1970. Publishers might insist on “by accident,” but conversational use of “on accident” is a growing trend. Hm.

No one has any idea why the change began in the 70s, but there are some theories behind the change.

One is that “an accident” is commonly heard, and young people might find it easy to simply alter the initial vowel to “on accident.” That seems unlikely to me.

My favorite theory — which I read both on Grammar Girl’s blog and elsewhere — is that young speakers tend to say “on accident” in opposition to “on purpose.” As in:

Bobby: You hit me on purpose!

Tommy: No, it was on accident!

That works for me. Still, if that accounts for the switch, the question then becomes: why doesn’t this get corrected over time? If the standard idiom is “by accident,” wouldn’t children pick up on this eventually like they do with other, similar speech errors? They soon enough learn that “I eated it” should be “I ate it” and “foots” is actually “feet.”

I suggest the reason is simply that people in general don’t care much about the “in/on purpose” distinction, and don’t bother correcting it. It’s an idiom after all. The standardized acceptance of “by accident” isn’t rooted in logic so much as custom. The idiomatic use of prepositions seems arbitrary in many situations. Do you stand “in line” or “on line”? Why is someone “in bed” and not “on bed”? Why “under water” rather than “within water”? Why do we get “on an airplane” rather than “in” one?

The answer to all these questions is because that’s the way we say it. This is similar to my favorite line from Ramona’s email, “I know this is incorrect, because it just is.” That’s idiom for you. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just is. The problem is, this places idioms on shaky ground when we talk about “correctness.” What happens when the way people say things changes? That seems to be happening with “by/on accident.” At the very least, people are beginning to accept either expression.

I’ll conclude with two pieces of advice:

1Let’s all stay calm and get along. I’m sure there’s no real turmoil in Ramona’s family over this. It’s likely just a friendly dispute over inconsequential matters. I enjoy this kind of discussion. It only concerns me when people (usually of my generation and older) start getting worked up over such things. Language changes over time. We’ve all got to deal with it. Some changes seem unnecessary and unhelpful (e.g., I like the distinction between can and may.). Others, well, who cares? “By accident” or “on accident” seems to be in the latter group.

2Avoid the problem. If you prefer “on accident” and don’t want to provoke the ire of grammar traditionalists, or if you prefer “by accident” and don’t want to face mockery by the young, or even if you don’t care either way and just want to stay out of the quarrel, you can always go another route. May I suggest “accidentally”?

I hope I’ve answered Ramona’s question. She and her husband are right in the sense that “by accident” has the longer history as an idiom and remains the preference of publishers. But their children are part of a generation that seems to be changing the idiom or at least introducing an acceptable alternative. It’s no more “wrong” to say “on accident” than it is to say “fail” or “lol.” Idioms are established by popular use and that seems to be changing — probably on accident.

*****

Comments? We don’t need your stinkin’ comments. No, wait, actually, we do. We’d love your comments, stinkin’ or otherwise.

 

¹Barratt, L.  “What Speakers Don’t Notice: Language Changes Can Sneak In,”  Innovation and Continuity in Language and Communication of Different Language Cultures, ed. Rudolf Muhr (Peter Lang, 2006). Also in TRANS 16/2005: http://www.inst.at/trans/16Nr/01_4/barratt16.htm (accessed June 13, 2007).

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Chloe
    Chloe03-18-2014

    I use BY accident or AN accident. This is the way I see it:

    Bobby: You hit me on purpose! (it was done intentionally)
    Tommy: No, it was on accident! (the act was not intentional, it should therefor be “by/an accident”).

    And then there is: with purpose (it’s done with meaning).

    • Chloe
      Chloe03-18-2014

      I don’t know if I am correct and would really like to know the correct answer, but it seems logical to me to think of it this way.

      • Brian Wasko
        Brian Wasko03-18-2014

        I don’t think I understand your question, Chloe. Didn’t I answer it in the post itself? What am I misunderstanding?

  2. Jane
    Jane01-18-2014

    Brian,

    I googled “by accident” vs. “on accident” because a 27 year adorable young guy who is installing a door in my townhouse texted me back after I texted him by accident thinking it was my husband.
    He texted, “You texted me on accident lol”. After I received his text I thought, wow even though this young man isn’t the academic type, he seemed pretty bright, until now.

    Thanks for your post on this idiom, what you researched made sense. I love language and words, I will be visiting your blog again. I still think “by accident” just sounds more correct, on accident sounds like something a child would say. Oh well tomato, tomodo.

  3. Grammar Police
    Grammar Police07-04-2013

    Brian, you are not helping children write better by composing sentences like: “Good question, and one I hadn’t thought of.” Ending in a preposition is a no-no. Thanks for playing. 😉

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-04-2013

      Says who, Grammar Police?

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-05-2013

      Are you suggesting that it would be better writing to say “…one of which I had not thought”? I disagree. That would be modeling to children awkward and unnatural writing that lacks the simple clarity of “one I hadn’t thought of.”

    • Sadie
      Sadie09-13-2013

      There’s such a thing as “writing like you speak,” i.e. informal writing, which is fine to use in a conversational blog post like this one. If he had written “one of which I had not thought,” that would have come across stiff and awkward, and would have arrested readers in their path; however, I also disagree with Brian that children shouldn’t bone up on formal writing, since if they don’t they will receive a rude awakening when they get to college. It’s important to know when to use it and when not to (use it). haha

      • Brian Wasko
        Brian Wasko09-13-2013

        Actually, Sadie, it’s a myth that students will face stricter grammar standards in college — especially if you are referring to long-refuted mythical rules like “never end a sentence with a preposition.” University linguists have been rejecting that so-called rule for a long time.

        And I am certainly not going to teach a grammar myth to children just because there are some out there who are convinced that terminal prepositions are somehow erroneous. That’s precisely how myths endure for so long.

        I wrote more about this here if you are interested: http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2012/05/never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition/

  4. CFloyd
    CFloyd09-26-2012

    1) “by accident” “on accident”: either-or could be avoid with just staying away from accidents period.

    2) There is less use of “by accident” in general because ever since the sue-happy trend began, everything is believed to have been perpetrated “on purpose” and everyone is a victim.

    By the way: Do you say POPsicle or popSIcle? GUItar, or guiTAR. Violin or Fiddle?

    🙂

    ** correct answers are: POPsicle, guiTAR, violin.

  5. Will
    Will09-26-2012

    “Comments? We don’t need your stinkin’ comments. No, wait, actually, we do. We’d love your comments, stinking or otherwise.”
    Personally, Brian, I wouldn’t encourage people to give comments that stink.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko09-26-2012

      Beggars can’t be choosers, Will. I’ll take what I can get.

  6. Linda M Au
    Linda M Au09-25-2012

    Ah, and I am currently wondering about “all of a sudden” versus what I see sometimes while proofreading, “all of the sudden.”

    I admit I’ve never heard “all of the sudden” spoken … ever … but it’s cropped up at least four times in various things I’ve proofed for others. Is there some similar “idiom” distinction here that I can simply mark and move past? Or is there some rule buried somewhere that I can cling to? (Proofreaders like rules they can memorize.) 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko09-25-2012

      “All of the sudden.” Coming soon! 🙂

    • Jane
      Jane01-18-2014

      Linda,

      Are you serious? You never heard any one ever say the idom, “All of a sudden”? Maybe it depends on where you’re from. Here in Jersey it’s said all the time, I think I say it a lot!! Unless I’m imagining it.

      Jane : )

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