On Accident

I listened to an NPR radio talk show the other day, A Way with Words, and learned something interesting about the way language is evolving almost in real-time.  A high school English teacher called to inquire about some language usage he had been hearing during the past ten years; the usage drove him up the walls.

He related how his students use the phrase “on accident” instead of “by accident.”  For example, a student might ask a question of another: “Why did you knock the books out of my hands?’  The response might be: “I’m sorry, it was on accident.”

The talk show hosts discussed the work of a linguist who had discovered that people born before 1970 would be inclined to use only “by accident” whereas people born between 1970 and 1990 might use both phrases interchangeably.  But people born after 1990 would be completely perplexed to hear “by accident” and would think the usage was wrong.

As we were listening to the program, I commented to my wife that “on accident” sounded odd to me, but it might just make sense given the fact that “on purpose” sounds perfectly fine to me.  I can imagine how kids who heard  something stated in the negative (“I did not do it on purpose”) might make the transition to stating the same thing in the positive by saying “I did it on accident.”

Language is so interesting.  In different circumstances, I might have been a linguist.  I might have been a cunning linguist.  I know…I know…but I couldn’t resist.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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7 Responses to On Accident

  1. Larry, it’s all about bass accidental cunning linguistourism with hats. And there you have it.

  2. Larry Zuckerman says:

    You are a cunning linguist and an accidental tourist. With your hat you are the bassist for the Swinburn/Zuckerman Band.

  3. Trish says:

    Asked my son….he says “by accident”. “On accident” sounded strange to him, also. But then again, he has considerable less exposure to new forms that the language takes on. In this case, I think I glad for that! lol!

  4. Trish says:

    would *have* carried…..

  5. Trish says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of “on accident”. I’m going to ask my son about this, though. He’s after 1990, and begin that he’s bilingual, I wonder if this change in usage would carried over. Will come back to this…..:)

  6. I’ve never heard “on accident” except on the radio show; obviously, I don’t spend enough time with younger people!

  7. robin andrea says:

    When I was growing up we always used the “by accident” expression. When I met my beautiful step-daughters, they always used “on accident.” I thought it was a peculiar sounding expression. Interesting that it has become popular usage. I don’t think I’ll ever say it, unless it just pops out of my mouth on accident! LOL!

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