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On Accident Versus by Accident

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

By
Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #523
On accident

Although I have no proof, I suspect that it must have something to do with nationwide media since it is such a widespread age-related phenomenon. Barney & Friends started airing in 1992, so maybe it's Barney's fault! Or there have been 19 seasons of Pokemon since 1999, so maybe Pokemon is to blame. If you know of a children’s show that uses on accident a lot and fits the timeline, let me know.

Writers Are Using ‘By Accident’ Less Often

Although Barratt’s study was about spoken English, I did do a Google Ngram search to check how on accident and by accident have been used in published books over the years. The use of on accident overall is very low compared to by accident, but it peaked in 1940 and has gradually fallen since.

Ngram on accident by accident

I did see a small but steady decline in the use of by accident since around 1900, but it’s hard to say what that means beyond simply saying that it is a trend. Writers seem to be using by accident less often in general. Maybe children are being exposed to it less? But the drop is gradual. It’s not something so dramatic that it makes me think children would never read the phrase. 

At this point, I think all we can say is that the change is one of those language things that happens sometimes.

Finally, although usage guides state that on accident is an error, and Shelly from Texas asked me to do what I can to ban on accident, Barratt found that there is no widespread stigma associated with saying on accident. In addition, it seems to me that as those kids who say on accident grow up (some of whom are even unaware that by accident is an option, let alone the preferred phrase of grown-ups) on accident will become the main, accepted phrase. By that time, there won't be enough of us left who say by accident to correct them!

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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.

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