Grammar Moses: Did you find this column accidentally or on purpose?

Updated 10/5/2019 6:42 PM

Sometimes it feels that you can read my mind. Sometimes more than one of you at a time.

I'm beginning to feel like Donald Sutherland in the remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."


"I have been told this phrase is generational and I, of course, am of the older generation," wrote reader Kathy Canick. "When I have done something by mistake or accidentally, I have said, 'I didn't do it on purpose.' I have heard more than one younger person say, 'It was on accident.' If they said, 'It was an accident,' I could accept that."

Reader Denny Hayes categorized this as a "nails on the blackboard" issue: "Since when has 'on accident' been replaced by 'by accident?'"

The standard form of the adverbial phrase is "by accident."

Just turn on your Google machine and you can see for yourself. Google's Ngram viewer, which compares the frequency in books of whatever words or phrases you plug into it, has been updated. Rather than running from 1800 to 2000, it now ends at 2008.

It shows that during that time frame, the frequency of "on accident" has remained very low and very flat. In 2008, the number of times "by accident" was used outnumbered "on accident" by a 64-to-1 ratio.

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And that's no accident. Formal writers know which is the standard form.

You'll be buoyed to know that the formal usage is on the upswing -- something that runs counter to my teenager-on-the-street research.

I have a theory on why "on accident" exists as a colloquialism: The meaning of "by accident" is "not on purpose." Did you catch that? Not ON purpose. If something is not ON purpose, it must be ON accident, right?

Well, no, but now you can see why young 'uns might go astray.

If you'd like, you could ditch both phrases and use the perfectly good adverb "accidentally."

Wait another five years, and those "on accident" teenagers will be writing books.

Adverse or averse?

I can't recall who wrote asking for proper uses for "adverse" and "averse," but it was probably more than one of you again, pointing your alien fingers at me, howling to signal my presence to the rest of the pod people.


Both adjectives signal opposition.

"Adverse" is often applied to things, generally things that are unfavorable: "adverse reactions to medication" or "adverse effects from the Shaun Mendes concert."

"Averse" is normally applied to people. Again, with a negative quality: "She says her boyfriend is a stick in the mud because he is averse to risk-taking" or "I am averse to waltzing to Led Zeppelin music."

The truth is, I'm averse to space aliens who disguise themselves as people I know, unless, of course, they subscribe to the newspaper.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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