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:
- speakers born before about 1970 hardly use on accident at all;
- speakers born between 1970 and 1995 use on accident and by accident (sometimes even an individual speaker will use both);
- 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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?