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

Reddit Comments Seem to Confirm the Study Results

Barratt’s study is 10 years old and it was relatively small, surveying only about 280 people, but I also found some recent evidence that on accident is relatively common among young people. The people at the website FiveThirtyEight made a tool that shows the frequency of words and phrases in more than a billion Reddit comments. It’s a lot like how you can search Google Books with Google Ngram, but it’s for Reddit, so instead of seeing how words are used in published books, you can see how words are used on the Internet, or at least on Reddit. 

Reddit users tend to be young (91% are younger than 35), so you would expect it to be a mix of people who prefer on accident and people who somewhat favor by accident. What you see is that Reddit commenters use by accident about three times as often as on accident, but that’s still a lot of people using on accident.

Reddit on accident by accident

Why Would People Change What They Say?

An interesting conclusion from Barratt's paper is that although there are some hypotheses, nobody really knows why younger people all over the U.S. started saying on accident instead of by accident. For example, there's the idea that on accident is parallel to on purpose, but nobody has proven that children all across the country started speaking differently from their parents because they were seeking parallelism

Neal Whitman, a linguist and regular Grammar Girl contributor, speculated that the change could have come from a mishearing of an accidentfor example, children mishearing It was an accident as It was on accident. But he also admits that this theory also doesn’t explain why on accident seemed to suddenly become the norm in people born after 1995.


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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