"on accident" vs. "by accident"


Grammar Expert, Growing up my mother was adamant we use "by accident" and "on purpose" vice "on accident", which is quite common in my home town.  I met a middle school English teacher who wasn't familiar with my mother's rule.  Therefore, I'm now curious if it was my mother's personal preference or if she was following a grammar rule?  Please clarify. Thank you, D.J.

Prepositions asked Feb 19 '13 at 08:48 Djt Barber New member

I suspect the variation that seems to be nationwide is related to a popular video/television program that occurred during the time frame of the 20-25 year old population.

Sandra MartinSep 19 '14 at 13:25

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There is a moral component to grammer. Correct usage enlightens. Inccorrect usage obscures or dcieves. "On accident" is oxymoronic.  It implies an intentional unintentional event.  That is illogical and logic is the first defense against lies and immorality.

link answered Dec 04 '15 at 15:45 Mike Contributor


blarglyAug 01 '16 at 18:14

Even though I would agree that "on accident," is being used incorrectly, I would not agree that is it "oxymoronic." Here's why. You are assuming that the word "on" in the phrase "on accident," implies intentional when this conclusion has not been clarified or proven. It would appear, because you offer no evidence, that you're making an assumption that this phrase is used as intentional. I say this because in the phrase "on purpose" the word "on" is meant to imply intentional, deliberate or puposeful and it would appear that you're usng the two different phrases in the same manner, with teh same conclusions. In the case of "on accident," this could not be further from the truth because the word "on" is a preposition, which by definition, renders your point invalid. As I am sure you already know, a preposition precedes a noun, which the word "accident" clearly represents. So, I would offer that although it appears that this phrase is being used incorrectly, and I do believe that it is, your point specifically does not make this argument.

AllenAug 26 '16 at 03:35

Thanks for your comment. I would love to able to explain this particular error better.

Preposition: a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in “the man on the platform,” “she arrived after dinner,” “what did you do it for ?”
on: preposition 1. so as to be or remain supported by or suspended from:
Put your package down on the table; Hang your coat on the hook.

by: preposition 1. identifying the agent performing an action. •after a passive verb.
"the door was opened by my cousin Annie" synonyms: through, as a result of, because of, by dint of, by way of, via, by means of; More with the help of, with the aid of, by virtue of
"I broke it by forcing the lid"

•after a noun denoting an action. "further attacks by the mob"
•identifying the author of a text, idea, or work of art. "a book by Ernest Hemingway"
2. indicating the means of achieving something. "malaria can be controlled by attacking the parasite" •after a noun denoting an action. "further attacks by the mob"

Something can be blamed on the accident but it happened by accident.

Maybe it would be better to consider the meanings of the words on and by.On purpose vs by intent.

MikeAug 26 '16 at 13:23

Agreed! Now, I should mention that although I am not from here, I currently live in Minnesota. This is pertinent because as you may, or may not know, this is a state where a very high percentage of the population do not use correct grammar. This is not meant as an insult, it's an observation and it's also a part of the Mid-West cultural landscape. So, when it comes to matters of English and grammar, I generally cut them a pass. Phrases like "on accident" are quite common, so I had to decide whether I would spend my time being critical, or understanding. I have learned to live with such phrases, but it doesn't mean that will not take notice. I do agree with your assessment and I believe identification goes a long way towards understanding one's intent. Now, although I am willing to let "on accident" go, I can't say that I will ever be as forgiving with the phrase "carmel!" I mean, c'mon, "Caramel" has already been identified as the proper, and only way, this word should be said, so this issue has been put to rest! This one I cannot let go! Thanks for the exchange, friend.

AllenAug 27 '16 at 04:00

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Yes, "on accident" does seem to be colloquial. I live in Missouri and it is in common usage here. Oh, I also dislike the use of "could of" in place of 'could have". Could of..of what? Sounds like a cheesy adventure movie...Could Of theMountains., Could Of the Marshes, Could Of the Could've, Should've, Would've!!!!

link comment answered Oct 19 '16 at 16:56 Edward Conry New member

Just because a study shows that people are doing something that does not mean that that "something" is correct.  Studies also show that 40% of the population is situationaly ethical, meaning that they will be unethical if they can get away with it. Does that make being unethical okay? Should we just adapt to changing ethics? I doubt that you would agree.


More than this, you should read the paper yourself, it is actually quite short and is available here: http://www.inst.at/trans/16Nr/01_4/barratt16.htm.


If you review her methodolgy you will see that she conducted a small survey in four states (a total of 269 participants in all), and the majority of her sample are from lower income areas. Additionally, she does not state anywhere in her paper that she is willing to adapt to the change, she merely explores the phenomena. Personally, while I appreciate her efforts as a preliminary foray into the subject, I find her methodology, expecially her population sample, to be questionable and I would not accept her findings without seeing them subjected to retesting with a more representative sample of the US population, in a controlled study.


As to your question of resources, neither I, nor any of the resources that I have consulted, have found any other resources that specifically list "by" as the preposition to use with the word accident, however, every example  in every reference book that I have consulted does employ the preposition "by" in their examples of sentences using the word accident. I have not seen one example of a grammar reference using the preposition "on" in conjunction with the word accident. I personally cringe everytime I hear someone say "on accident". It is a documented fact that our educational system is failing and I suspect the explosion of the use of "on accident" is a reflection of the degradation of the U.S. educational system, and the failure of parents to correct their children because they themselves are products of a poor educational system. There is nothing wrong with insisting that your children use proper grammar and I applaud your desire to ensure that your children speak properly. I have always considered it part of my responsiblity as a mother to ensure that my child use proper grammer.

link answered Jul 12 '13 at 22:14 Tina Van Rikxoord New member

Practically all grammar rules have started as mistakes. English itself is riddled with illogical structure and phrases that have become proper/standard because they have been accepted overtime.

James EckSep 09 '15 at 16:42

They have been accepted over time. Overtime is extra time.

David HarrisonOct 27 '15 at 19:09

Touché, that is French.

MikeAug 27 '16 at 13:43

Touché, that is French.

MikeAug 27 '16 at 13:43

Touché, that is French.

MikeAug 27 '16 at 13:43

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Thank you for calling this maddening mistake what it is! I only wish someone would truly explain the grammatical reasoning behind it.


My conclusion from the past five or six years of observation has been that the "on accident" crowd has one of the following five characteristics in common: they hail from a Midwestern or Southern state, anAfrican-American communities, they are first or second generation Americans, or they come from a lower socio-economic origin -- perhaps not immediately, but if you dig back a generation at most. I have no explanation for this. I can only say that it has interested me enough that I have started making mental notes whenever I've heard it used in conversation.


To any proponent of "on accident" I would ask,  would you ever say "on chance" or "on mistake"? No. You would say:


by accident

by mistake

by coincidence

by chance


On the other hand,  a person might say, "I stopped by on the off chance that you might be at home." I have read that the on/by divide might be grammatically explained because one construction relates to an intentional action, whereas the other relates a passive occurance over which one has no control. Possibly the grammatical construction of the sentence above can be explained somewhere in that divide between the active and the passive.


I know that if you type "on accident" into any language translation program, you will most often get an incorrect answer or an error message. If you type "by accident", you will get an accurate translation.  Also, French and German both use different words to convey "by accident" and "on purpose", for example:



by accident/by mistake/by chance:

par accident
par erreur
par hasard


on purpose:

sur le but
à dessein



on purpose
mit absicht

by accident
durch Zufall

by mistake
aus Versehen


Finally, if you search a thesaurus for a synonym for "by chance" you will get "by accident", never "on accident.


I wish someone better educated than I would explain the grammatical rule that clarifies this once and for all.


Thank you for reading my thoughts.




link comment answered Apr 11 '15 at 02:16 E.L. New member

"Expecially"? Run-on sentences? "Grammer"? I hope you are not teaching by example.

link answered Jul 16 '13 at 01:40 Sharky New member

Might have been intended for irony's sake. If we're to accept certain forms of linguistic change (such as the growing prevalence of "on accident"), we are obliged to do the same for alternate spellings of words as they, too, become more commonplace. As well as the dastardly "could of."

Sean CDec 17 '13 at 15:55

We should absolutely accept new spellings of words; "could of" is not merely an alternate spelling, but the use of a different word, from a different grammatical category, due to confusion based on phonetic similarity.

TimFeb 21 '14 at 14:42

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"Expecially"? Run-on sentences? "Grammer"? I hope you are not teaching by example.

link answered Jul 16 '13 at 01:40 Sharky New member

This man has provided me with the knowledge needed to succeed. Please do not criticize the way he writes, as he is just as imperfect as any other human on this vast blue planet. Live long and prosper my dear friend. Namaste. :)

Josh NarrowMay 06 '14 at 12:00

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Stop comparing grammar to morality.

link comment answered Feb 21 '14 at 14:41 Tim New member

I don't ever remember hearing on accident when I was growing up 60 years ago in NJ. Heard it all the time when I had children in MO. I've always wondered if it came from a childhood confusion with on purpose.

link comment answered Jun 05 '14 at 15:16 Mary Remillong New member

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