Posted by: Jack Henry | February 4, 2021

Editor’s Corner: On Accident or By Accident?

Dear Editrix,

I was listening to my nine-year-old daughter talking to one of her friends over the iPad and she used the phrase “she dropped her books on accident.” Then I heard her use “on accident” in another sentence and it made me question if it was now ok to say on accident or if by accident was the proper grammar.


Wondering Mama

Hello there!

What an interesting observation! Whether it is by accident or on accident (or both) isn’t something I’ve thought about before. I was trying to think of an example, such as “I bought this book by accident.” Would I say on or by? I decided I’d say by accident or accidentally. But I’ve definitely heard the alternative on accident, so I did some digging.

The first article I read on said that by accident is correct and that people might say on accident, but they certainly wouldn’t write it because it isn’t proper.

I thought I should look further, and I found more information from our buddy Grammar Girl. I’ve copied a few interesting paragraphs from her research that I hope answer the question for you.

…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.

…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!

It looks like your daughter is safe from a lecture and she’s just “acting her age.” Or maybe you could go a little further and call her a trend-setter?

And from Dan Green, a quote from the internet that I just loved:

“If you try to correct my grammar, I will think fewer of you.”

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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