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.