On Accident Versus by Accident

Today I'm going to talk about on accident versus by accident and how language changes.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #523

Some of the most difficult questions I get are from non-native English speakers who want to know why we use a particular preposition in a specific phrase. Why do we say I'm in bed instead of I'm on bed? Do people suffer from a disease or suffer with a disease? Are we in a restaurant or at a restaurant? I’m a native English speaker, so my first thought is usually something like, “I don't know why; in bed just sounds right,” and sometimes both options are correct.

Here's a question I hear regularly:

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 Hi Grammar Girl. This is Tom Kennedy from Pleasanton, CA. What is the deal with the term on accident? I've always used by accident, but I've noticed a lot of pretty smart people . . . I've noticed them using on accident. So, am I wrong?

Sometimes when I get questions like this I can find an answer, and sometimes I can't. In this case, I hit pay dirt!  I was lucky enough to find an entire research paper on the topic, published by Leslie Barratt, a professor of Linguistics at Indiana State University. 

Whether You Say ‘On Accident’ Depends on Your Age

According to Barratt's study, use of the two different versions appears to be distributed by age. Whereas on accident is common in people under 40 or so, almost everyone who is older than that today says by accident. It's really amazing: the study is 10 years old now, but if you assume usage hasn’t changed in the last 10 years, the results mean people born after 1995 are more likely to use on, people born between 1970 and 1995 say by accident more often than on accident, but still use on accident a lot too, and then people born before 1970 overwhelmingly prefer by accident. It looks like a directly age-related change in the way people are saying this phrase.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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