Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

On or By Accident

Posted by Neal on February 6, 2008

In my last post, I mentioned an episode of Grammar Girl’s podcast that I had found particularly interesting, about by accident and on accident. In case you haven’t listened to that episode or read the transcript, here it is again. (Also interesting: this post at Mother Tongue Annoyances on the same topic.) In this episode, Grammar Girl summarizes the findings of Leslie Barratt of Indiana State University, which can be found here (watch out, one of the tables is messed up, and doesn’t match the graph it goes with). In short, Barratt finds that:

  1. speakers born before about 1970 hardly use on accident at all;
  2. speakers born between 1970 and 1995 use on accident and by accident (sometimes even an individual speaker will use both);
  3. speakers born after 1995 use on accident to the near exclusion of by accident.

This is not just speakers in one region; she surveyed speakers in Indiana, Michigan, California, and Georgia, from different socioeconomic classes.

What could have caused such a sudden shift to the almost complete displacement of by accident in speakers born after 1995? Barratt doesn’t know, but she does know one thing: You can’t just say it’s done by analogy with on purpose, for three reasons:

  1. On purpose and by accident have been around for centuries, so why is it only in the 1970s that on purpose had this influence on by accident, and why did the new form suddenly edge out the old in the mid-1990s?
  2. Why did the analogy go in the direction it did? That is, why didn’t speakers leave by accident unchanged and start saying by purpose instead of on purpose?
  3. Why do even kids who don’t say on purpose still say on accident?

Barratt doesn’t mention another possible source of on accident that has occurred to me. It could originate in a mis-hearing of

It was an accident!

Of course, there would still be the question of why this reinterpreted an accident made such a complete takeover when it did.

Anyway, I happened to be listening to this podcast while I was driving to the barbershop with Doug and Adam. I had just heard Doug say on accident that morning, so I asked him what he thought about this research. He said he used on accident, and found by accident kind of strange and confusing.

Wow, I thought. He fits right in with the pattern Barratt saw. Then Doug added, “But Adam says by accident.”

He did? I couldn’t remember. That probably meant he did. All his by accidents wouldn’t have made an impression on a fellow by accident speaker like me. I would have taken note only if he’d said something I found unusual, like on accident. “Is that right, Adam?” I asked. “If you made a mistake, would you say, ‘Oops, I did that by accident,’ or ‘on accident’?”

“By accident,” Adam said. Hearing him say it, I began to recall arguments between him and Doug: Doug demanding why Adam had done such-and-such, and Adam glaring down at his feet and saying darkly, “It was just … by … accident!”

So, I thought, there are kids born after 1995 who still say by accident. Cool.

But as I was getting my haircut, I kept wondering: Why would two boys, within two years of the same age, raised in the same household, differ in their choice of on accident or by accident? As I thought about it more, I formed a discouraging hypothesis. Since my wife and I are both by accident speakers, Doug didn’t learn on accident from us. He must have learned it from his peers. Not only are they the most likely source, but Barratt’s research predicts that Doug’s peers probably prefer on accident; and Doug talks and plays a lot with a lot of his peers. Adam, on the other hand, talks and plays with few of his peers, rarely. It’s getting better: his therapist reports amazing progress in his peer interactions at school. But there’s just no comparison with Doug. Doug has been phoned by multiple friends on a weekend, and once lobbied for half the school week to invite two of his friends over at the same time on Saturday to play video games. When I ask Adam if he’d like to see if this friend or that friend of his would like to come over, he says, “Nah.” Every now and then one of them will invite him to play, and he’ll go and have fun, but it doesn’t happen often. And it happened even less during the time when he was settling upon an expression to mean “unintentional”. Therefore, he acquired that piece of the language not from his peers, but from his mom and me.

To check the hypothesis, I asked Doug tonight if he remembered learning the phrase on accident. He did. He remembered being very confused about the three expressions by accident, on accident, and on purpose until he was about five years old. Two of them had accident in common; two had on in common. And even though there were three expressions, they only seemed to express two meanings. For a while he thought it was the on/by distinction that encoded intentionality or lack thereof: on accident and on purpose were for when you meant to do something; by accident was for when you didn’t mean to. But that breakdown was so confusing that he says he kept on asking one friend or classmate after another for clarification, until he’d finally gathered enough data and made his choice: the minimally distinct on accident and on purpose.

I can understand his reasoning: Seeing that he was apparently at liberty to choose by accident or on accident, why would he choose the one that had two differences from on purpose? He was expressing only one distinction, so why not choose the expression that differed by only one word?

56 Responses to “On or By Accident”

  1. Ran said

    In #1 in the first list, should that read “before about 1970”? Because otherwise, I don’t understand what’s meant.

  2. The Ridger said

    According to Barratt’s paper, yes, that should be “BEFORE about 1970”.

  3. Kip said

    I was born in 1981, and I say “by accident.” Although I think I am actually more likely to say “Oops, that was an accident” or to use the adverb, i.e. “I did it accidentally.” But I’m not sure since I don’t have recordings of myself or anything.

  4. Neal said

    Correction: “after 1970” has been changed to “before 1970”. Thanks to Ran, the Ridger, and Glen for bringing this to my attention.

  5. Bridget said

    Really, before 1970? Very interesting. I think of this as one of the ‘generational divides’ between me (born in 1984) and my sister (born in 1990). To be fair, my sister doesn’t say “on accident” anymore, but I remember that she & her classmates did when she was your kids’ age and I thought it was so weird.

  6. Viola said

    “On accident” has always sounded careless or implied a sort of flippant negligence to me. I also do not think the explanation sounds very sincere or contrite when my children have used the expression to apologize. If I feel the suspicion of insincerity is correct, I usually inform them that the offense (which most of the time includes bodily injury) was delivered “accidently on purpose.” This said, I would hope as a mother that I’m not being overly critical regarding the difference between whether my children are sincere or not based on their use or misuse of vocabulary and grammar!

  7. Neal said

    Your mention of accidentally on purpose reminds me of this posting from Jan. 19, 2000, on the American Dialect Society listserv, which Barratt mentions. It has this exchange between Ron Butters and Lynne Murphy:

    Ron Butters said:
    > I just asked two guys from Chicago about this (one is actually from central
    > Micihgan, age about 30; the other is 40).
    > They are both aware of BOTH usages and seem to find a semantic distinction
    > between them: BY ACCIDENT means “unintentionally” in a broad sense; ON
    > ACCIDENT refers to some physical incident in which someone is culpible: BY
    This sounds absolutely right to me. I think it further underscores the
    relation to ‘on purpose’, since the kinds of things that get done ‘on acci-
    dent’ can also get done ‘on purpose’, but those that happen ‘by accident’
    can’t necessarily _happen_ ‘on purpose’.


  8. Viola said

    Neal, thanks for the support of semantic interpretation! It often puzzles me whether I’m reading into something a little too much or whether I’m not picking up on subtle cues often enough; which goes to show that it’s all a learning experience.

  9. The Ridger said

    So, would this distinction only apply to those who use both? If “speakers born after 1995 use on accident to the near exclusion of by accident” do they have this distinction any more than those who never use it? If not – if the younger people aren’t using both forms – it seems that might be the sort of reanalysis that’s employed to explain something people hear, rather than one that actually provides useful information.

  10. Neal said

    The Ridger:
    I think this distinction in semantics is indeed for a subset of people who use both forms. My suspicion is that this is the principle of “one form, one meaning” at work, the principle that drives processes like regularization of irregular verbs. In this case, speakers hear two forms that seem to have the same meaning. To bring them into compliance with OFOM, they look for, or create, a semantic distinction between the two forms. (In other words, I think you’re right.) That’s one way of trying to attain OFOM: creating an extra meaning. The other is to kill one of the forms, often by saying that by accident is right, and on accident is wrong. Or in Doug’s case, by deciding that on accident is right, and by accident is, maybe not exactly wrong, but confusing enough to be kicked out of his active vocabulary.

  11. Matthew said

    I like your “an accident” hypothesis. I was born in ’88 and I always say “by accident,” but “on accident” has never struck me as unusual.

  12. Alexis said

    Wow. This post has me utterly confused. Maybe it’s an American thing, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “on accident” before. “On purpose”, sure, and certainly “by accident”, but never “on accident”. How peculiar (and interesting).
    For context, I’m Australian, and born in 1985.

    • Beth said

      Thank you Alexis. I wondered how it would sound to someone from somewhere else. I feel “by” is accurate and “on” just sounds lazy and wrong to me.

    • David said

      I had never heard it myself until I started dated an American a year ago (born 1987). I’m British, born in 1985. “On accident” really grates on me, to the extent that I am unable to let it slide (much to the annoyance of the previously mentioned American). I can’t help myself. It just sounds so WRONG.

  13. […] I get 418K Google hits for “jumping rope”, and 127K for “jumproping”, “jump roping”, and “jump ropeing” combined. There were enough hits for jump-roping compared to jumping rope that my suspicion is that jump-roping has been around for quite a while. I don’t have any data correlating these forms with age, so I can’t say if jump-roping is something that’s only recently caught on. However, if Doug’s friends are representative of the general population of American English-speaking kids, I’m getting a feeling of deja vu […]

  14. Lewis said

    I’m in the UK and I have never heard anyone of any age here ever say “on accident”.

  15. I’m with Lewis. “on accident” doesn’t seem to be in use in Australia either, regardless of age-grouping.

  16. Neal said

    Alexis, Lewis, and Tateru Nino:
    Thanks for your input regarding on accident in Australian and UK English. I should have specified that Barratt’s study focused just on American English. I have passed this information on to Lynne Murphy at Separated by a Common Language, who writes about differences between American and British (and sometimes other varieties) of English.

  17. Paul said

    My daughter born in 2000 says “on accident” which irks me as a ‘by’ user who was born well before 1970. We live in England, are English and – hopefully – speak ‘British’ so it seems to have migrated here too

  18. Hello said

    I was born in ’93 and I say “on accident.” By accident sounds so odd to me…

  19. Abby said

    I was born in 1983 and I say “by accident,” but I specifically remember be lectured by my father that it is “by accident” and “on purpose.” And I’m a language nerd, so of course I make sure to use the “right” expression. Though it seems that if an entire generation has begun to use “on accident,” that is or will soon become the accepted usage.

  20. Uly said

    Both my nieces say “on accident”. I assumed, since they’re both young, that it was a misunderstanding of “on purpose”, but maybe they picked it up from other kids instead.

  21. […] summarizes the surprising results of one linguist’s study on who uses each expression. (See also this post.) When Fogarty talks about hanged vs. hung as the past tense for hang, she doesn’t just say that […]

  22. Anya said

    1983 model South African here. I’ve never heard anyone say “on accident”.

  23. I always thought it was by accident. Never heard anyone say on accident. Maybe its an american thing we dont have over here?

  24. HurdyGurdy said

    Doesn’t everyone still say “by mistake”? If that’s the case, why would “by accident” be more confusing that “on accident”?

  25. HurdyGurdy said

    “that” is a typo

  26. George Azzu said

    I am from England, and never had I heard the expression “on accident” until I came to the U.S. (California). There is nothing more annoying to me than to hear people utter the words “on accident.” In my humble opinion people should not settle for the incorrect use of language. We should strive to teach our future generations the correct way to speak. Another thing that bugs the bjesus out of me is the incorrect use of “your” and “you’re,” why are people settling for incorrect use of language? I was in 1893 and am currently 27, while I am not an expert on grammar, I realise the difference between correct and incorrect use of language, and I urge people to maintain the purity of our language and not allow it to be polluted by such annoying phrases.

    • Neal said

      You were what in 1893?

      Oh! You were BORN in 1983! The math works out now.

      Anyway, here’s some incorrect language that bugs the hell out of me. Kids’ll say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow.” Horse, dammit, horse! You’re not so hungry you could eat a cow; you’re so hungry you could eat a horse! You’d think they’d learn this in school, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised with the state of educational standards these days.

      • Liz said

        You think schools should teach “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”?! That’s ridiculous. Schools do (of course) teach idioms/figures of speech, however there are far more important things to be taught. Did you understand by their usage that they were meaning they were hungry? Yes? Good. Then they communicated effectively.

      • Neal said

        Liz, I think you must not have detected my irony. That complaint was completely fabricated, in an attempt to point out the baselessness of George’s complaint.

  27. dw said

    Another thing that bugs the bjesus out of me is the incorrect use of “your” and “you’re,” why are people settling for incorrect use of language

    Maybe for the same reason you’re “settling for ‘incorrect’ use” of punctuation?

    I urge people to maintain the purity of our language and not allow it to be polluted by such annoying phrases.

    Excellent idea! What shall we speak: Old English, Proto-Indo-European, or perhaps they’re not “pure” enough for you?

  28. […] what he was thinking”, or when he shared the reasoning he went through that led him to prefer on accident to by accident, or various other things you can read about in the Darndest Things tab. (One of these days, […]

  29. VG said

    I was born in 1984 and I use both “on accident” and “by accident”. Although after reading the question to Adam of which I would say, “I did something on accident” or “I did something by accident”, I would say the former exclusively. This led me to wonder in which context(s) I would say “by accident”. My initial thought on the matter, perhaps resorting to an easy formulation, is that I would use “on accident” in active constructions and “by accident” in passive constructions.

    • Neal said

      That’s an interesting way of drawing a usage distinction. I wonder how many other speakers have it.

      Meanwhile, I heard Adam use on accident last night! We watched A Fish Called Wanda, and he wondered why Michael Palin’s character didn’t just shoot his intended victim directly, instead of shooting a pulley that would let a heavy weight drop down on her. I said it would have been an obvious murder if he had shot her directly. Adam said, “So he wanted to make it look like she was killed on accident.” I see that Adam doesn’t have the active/passive on/by distinction that you bring up, since he used on accident in a passive sentence.

  30. AB to MD said

    I first heard “on accident” from my children and their teachers after moving from Chattanooga to the decidedly more rural Jamestown, TN. I had equated it with such ruralisms as “I don’t care to / I don’t care if I,” as in, “I don’t care to help you take out the trash,” which has the opposite meaning you would expect, more like, “I don’t mind.” It, “on accident,” is now heard frequently from the mouths of all manner of the less educated who now “star” in the reality shows and the like that fill the airways (cableways?). More and more easily are the linguistic patterns of various speakers sifting through the language these days. I believe dictionaries still define “accidentally” as “occurring by accident.”

  31. mike said

    i was born on 1995, and all i say is by accident.

  32. Tom S. said

    I was born in the Northeast in 1955 and attended a Benedictine prep school in New Jersey. I had never even heard “on accident” until my son, born in 1995 kept saying it. My daughter, born in 1993, who has attended all the same private schools as her brother, says “by accident”. We do live in Florida now so I assumed it to be a “Southern thing” but apparently it isn’t. The only explanation I can think of is that my son is much more casual / careless in almost everything he does than my daughter and this may be reflected in his language use too. Of course where we live, there was, last year in August, a roadside lighted sign that warned “ Drive Slow, Schools is in session”! The fact that no one in the U.K or the other former colonies uses “on accident”, would seem to prove, that it is only correct in the minds of a generation of Americans that weren’t corrected by their baby-boomer parents when they said it “by mistake” the first time..

  33. Tracey said

    My husband and I have continually corrected our children, born in ’95 and ’98, on this grammatical error for the last few years. We thought it was a regional thing since we moved to AR four years ago. We were both born in the sixties. Fascinating!

    • Neal said

      Why should it be an error? If the original expression were on accident and by accident were the newcomer, you’d be telling your kids that by accident was a grammatical error. Both consist of a preposition plus accident, and neither preposition makes more sense than the other, so why can’t they both be OK?

  34. Denise said

    “On accident” always sounded a little uneducated to me. I’m constantly telling my boyfriend that it’s “by accident.” This was a good read and it’s amazing to me how ignorant I was to the way “on accident” has been taking over! I still don’t think it’s right but the masses win, I guess (but i’m never letting my bf read this post).

    • Amanda said

      My husband has always said “on accident”, whereas I grew up with Nby accident.” Every time my three year old says “on accident” a part of my grammatical soul dies – and I only have so many, much like horcruxes of sorts! I correct him and my husband argues that “he can pick whichever he prefers.” I will not lose this battle. Several people have stated that “on accident” sounds uneducated, but “by accident” sounds weird if you were raised with the former. I would rather he sound “weird” than “uneducated.”

  35. Jack_IWW said

    I find these phrases very odd sounding. I use the adverbs accidentally, mistakenly, purposely and never use “on” or “by” to preface accident, mistake or purpose.

    In my opinion the adverbial phrase flows while the other phrases sound cumbersome to my ears.

    Perhaps I’m very old school having been born in 1956.

  36. Silvia Graciela Martínez said

    Probably this same semantic distinction is applicable to the legal usage of: domicile “of choice” and domicile ” by choice” where the first refers to the true place of residence and in the second the domicile chosen for legal purposes only, i.e. for business reasons, legal, etc.
    Could there be many other cases with this same reasoning? I just don’t remember right now!

  37. Jeanne Turhill said

    I just searched this very issue because I have two kids who were arguing about the correct form this morning. You article could’ve been written about my two girls…..the older who says by accident and who is not nearly as social as the younger who says on accident!

  38. I am an avid proponent of ‘by accident’ as opposed to ‘on accident’, to the point where I whole-heartedly believe ‘on accident’ is grammatically incorrect. Further, having been born just before 1995 (1991) I grew up with most of my peers preferring the use of ‘on accident’. Recently I realized that their preference for the term is less related to ‘ease’, as was suggested, and more due to clarity. Elementary education on grammar consists of teaching students to echo varying meanings utilizing standardized sentence structure. Thus, when discussing the intentionality of an action it is general custom to decided whether the action was on purpose. Therefore, to maintain the standard sentence structure for this instance one would just replace purpose with accident; essentially like filling in a Mad-Lib.

    Though this explains the increase in tendency to use ‘on accident’ rather than ‘by accident’, it does not address that ‘on accident’ is wrong.
    The definition of on:
    1.) so as to be or remain supported by or suspended from:
    Refers to physical proximity, and thus does not apply to the abstract concept of ‘accident’ nor the theme of intention.

    2.) so as to be attached to or unified with:

    3.) so as to be a covering or wrapping for:
    Refers to physical proximity, and thus does not apply to the abstract concept of ‘accident’ nor the theme of intention.

    4.) in connection, association, or cooperation with; as a part or element of:

    5.) so as to be a supporting part, base, backing, etc., of:
    Refers to physical proximity, and thus does not apply to the abstract concept of ‘accident’ nor the theme of intention.

    Thus only 2 and 4 can be used to describe an abstract. Both definitions refer generalize other more specific definitions of ‘on’ but all rely on a conscious and purposeful intention. That said, in the dichotomy of on purpose and by accident, one cannot have purposeful or intentional accidents. Purpose refers to outcome matching intention; they are connected, attached, or unified (note the parallel to definitions 2 and 4). However accident is not so simple, though it refers to outcome opposing or differing from intention it is such that accident hinders intention and causes outcome. Intention fails to reach outcome by way of accident.

    It is counter-intuitive, but accident implies explicit causality. In the case of an accident, the outcome differs from the intention as a direct result of the ‘accident’. However, in the case of ‘on purpose’, there is no way to know whether the outcome matches the intention as a direct result of purpose, it only does so in connection with purpose.

    If you found my points interesting, I have a few other similarly interesting rants posted on
    (and no this comment was not just a ploy to get more followers, I don’t post frequently enough to substantiate such behavior)

    • Neal said

      Your first paragraph has the same problem as other analogy-based explanations, it seems to me: We could just as easily expect a proliferation of by purpose instead of on accident.

      Your appeals to the dictionary definition of on apply just as well to on purpose as they do to on accident. In other words, why aren’t you arguing that both on accident and on purpose are ungrammatical? Maybe you address this when you talk about a connection between outcome and intention, which exists with purpose but not with accident. However, this logical connection doesn’t bear on the things that on connects. If on is predicating that some X is (metaphorically or physically) on Y, that X is the subject of the sentence, not some unexpressed outcome. In other words, in Sandy did it on purpose, the thing that’s “on” the purpose is not the outcome, but the subject Sandy, in the same way as Sandy slept on the floor entails that Sandy was on the floor.

  39. K. said

    born in 1979, northeast coastal US, i had never even heard anyone say “on accident” until i moved to the midwest. i assumed it was just one weird regionalism among many. “on accident” sounds so strange, i could never imagine myself using it. like “pop” instead of soda, or “sucker” instead of lollypop.

  40. Sciquest said

    Born before 1970, grew up in California. “On accident” was what the little kids (pre-literate or newly literate) said, but most seemed to grow out of it, through exposure to reading, I guess.

    To this day, “on accident” sounds very childish to me. (To my ear, “on purpose” is likewise awkward and childish when used where an adverb is called for to mean “intentionally. I hate seeing it in formal writing.)

  41. […] See more about this article by clicking the link here: […]

  42. Ed said


  43. bee said

    I was always under the impression that “on accident” was an English phrase; I’m pretty sure I read it in books by English authors. For the record, I fall into category one, and I’m a Californian.

  44. I was born in the early ’80s and predominately use ‘accidentally’.

  45. Jaxk said

    on purpose – you did it
    by accident – it happened to you
    on accident – you make a mistake

  46. Liz said

    I was born in 1985 in New England and use “by accident”‘exclusively. I first heard someone say “on accident” was when I went away for college. It struck me as so offensive & out of place. Ever since then I’ve heard it more & more often, and I find it as jarring as hearing nails on a chalkboard.

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