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That's What They Say: Don't misuse prepositions 'on accident'

If something can happen “on purpose,” then why not “on accident.” If you’re over 40, you probably say, “by accident.”

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore prepositions and other grammar oddities. Michigan Radio's Rina Millertalks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

Curzan refers to a new study from Leslie Barratt, Professor of Linguistics at Indiana State University, that found speakers under the age of 15 were using “on accident.” She found that some of them weren't even aware they did it. Respondents said people should or could use "by accident," but it turns out that those speakers themselves used "on accident."

One factor can be analogy, according to Curzan, because you have the phrase “on purpose” you can get “on accident.” She adds that there’s “not a rhythm nor reason to why we are using a particular preposition.”

“If you think about a phrase like ‘in an attempt,’ why is it 'in?' It seems like it can logically be ‘by an attempt,’” she said.

Miller asks whether analogy can explain other changes, such as heighth vs. height.

“In some ways 'heighth' makes sense. If you think about the progression there, you’ve got breadth, width, depth, length. So height is clearly the odd noun out. And some speakers, through analogy, are using ‘heighth,’” said Curzan.

Around 1,000 AD people used “heighth,” according to Curzan. She says both pronunciations appear in English through the 17th and 18th centuries, but then “height” became more dominant. Curzan says now there’s a potential resurgence of “heighth.”

Mercedes Mejia is a producer and the Director of Stateside.