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It Did It on Accident! July 21, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Language, Teaching.
Tags: , , , ,



I’m not a card carrying member of the Grammar Police, but I do keep a badge in my top drawer.  Not that I haven’t made my own share of spelling and grammar gaffes along the way.  I once wrote eight thank you notes to my mother’s friends who’d hosted a wedding shower for me.  I thanked them profusely for the vacume cleaner they’d given me.  My mother was tempted to ask for a refund on my college tuition.  Third graders love to hear THAT story.

There are two things my students say that bug me to no end.  One is, “It’s mines!”  I realize that there is his and hers, but there’s no mines.  At least not in my universe.  Notice I didn’t include its because I know some adults who still mess that one up, at least in writing.  I gently remind my students that there are only two kinds of mines: 1. holes in the ground where people go to work if they don’t have an education, or 2. explosive devices that tend to leave small children, like themselves, limbless.  I figure this will make a lasting impression.

This said, within 20 minutes of the above gentle reminder, someone inevitably blurts out, “It’s mines!”  I must admit that last year I finally nipped that bad habit by taking a marble out of the coveted marble jar every time someone uttered mines.  Problem solved.

The other thing that bugs me is when kids say on accident instead of by accident.  I teach a cluster of English Language Learners (ELLs to you civilians) and originally thought this explained the mix-up.  After all, you do something on purpose, so it figures that children would think that the flip-side is on accident.  “I knocked out his front teeth on accident!”  “I peed my pants on accident!”  Again, I gently remind them that they peed themselves by accident, which probably explains how many were also conceived.

Imagine my horror then when I read that this line of logic is so old school, or should I say old skool?  I recently purchased Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty, which is a rolicking fun read.  She found an entire research paper on the by/on accident conundrum, published by Leslie Barratt, a linguistics professor at Indiana State University.  Barratt found that most people 40 and over use by accident.  For people between 10 and 35, it was a toss-up. and for those under 10, on accident is most prevalent.  The horror!  

Barrett goes on to say that most children don’t even realize that by accident is an option unless a caring teacher, like myself, points this out.  She takes it a step further and says eventually there won’t be enough of us around to set the under-10 demographic straight.  Now, I just need to tell my mother I misspelled vacuum on accident.  


1. Jessica Pasternak - July 27, 2008

Oh, yes — this one drives me crazy! I, too, assumed that “on purpose” led to “on accident.” I, too, tried to gently explain to my terminally confused ELLs that they are two different expressions. (I keep reminding them that English is NOT a logical language!) I downloaded my Border’s Rewards coupon for this weekend so that I can go buy Fogarty’s book. Thank you.


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