About seven months ago, I asked you all to vote on a very important issue (perhaps more important than the presidency). That issue was an on-going debate that Nik and I were having about the correct way to say the following sentence:
A. I just dropped my glass of milk by accident.
B. I just dropped my glass of milk on accident.
I had 13 votes from that blog (making it my most-commented on post ever). The following day, I went to a hymn sing and took a poll of seven more people.
The following is my doctoral dissertation on the subject. As with all good dissertations, I didn’t exactly finish it on the required time schedule. The data was collected within two days of beginning the research but the data analysis and interpretation took another 6 1/2 months to complete.
Section 1: Data
The following is the data from my research (every good doctoral dissertation has some kind of data):
States voting for BY:
States voting for ON:
A total of 4 states with a total of 10 votes.
Section 2: Interpretation (this is where I get to twist the statistics however I feel like it)
ON totally wins!!! The hymn party was skewed to the East Coast, where 7 of the 10 “by” votes were cast. Had I been at a hymn sing in Alaska, South Dakota, or Colorado, I know ON would have dominated. The California vote was split 3 to 1 so I think “on” wins. And I think the “By” Montana vote was probably just an outlier, and can easily be discarded.
Seriously, the East Coast/West Coast hypothesis has definitely been confirmed.
Section 3: The Fine Print/Absolution of Guilt
This section is dedicated to those of you who left comments such as, “…grammatically, it should be?” and “I wonder about it grammatically?”.
Finally, in an effort to put my master’s degree in TESOL to work (and particularly those linguistics courses I had to take), here’s a little lesson about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics. Most linguists are strictly interested in simply discovering the way that native speakers of a language (i.e. those who have been speaking a language their whole lives) use a language. So a linguist would not make a judgment on whether “by” or “on” was correct, but rather note the differences in use and then try to figure out why the difference existed. In this case, geography seems to be the determining factor. This is true in most minor differences within a language. (Note, for example, Alaska’s use of “going Outside” to mean leaving the state rather than leaving the house. No one in Maryland says that!). Basically, descriptive linguists will say that if a native speaker uses a phrase, and it sounds correct to that native speaker’s ear, then it IS correct, at least for that person.
On the whole other side of the debate are the prescriptive linguists. Those are the people who write grammar rules books and tell you that you have to say, “My friends and I” rather than “Me and my friends”. (Cough. Cough. Mom.) The French have a particularly strong control over their language and probably have a whole staff of prescriptive linguists working for them. A prescriptive linguist might say that “by” was correct or that “on” was correct. However, I think that this one is enough of a gray issue that even the prescriptive linguists would disagree on what the correct answer was.
I think we need both the descriptive and prescriptive linguists. Grammatically speaking, going by the rules of the English language, “Me and my friends” is incorrect because “me” is an object pronoun, not a subject pronoun, and consequently cannot be used in the subject of a sentence. So, “Me and my friends” is actually what some might call “lazy English”. However, a descriptive linguist would argue that actually, the language is just changing and maybe the rules about “me” are changing too. And so the debate goes.
Interesting, my friend Kerri pointed out that she thought that “accidentally” might be a better choice about “by” or “on”. So her sentence would be:
And in reading that, I think that probably both the “by” and “on” camps would agree that the sentence sounds OK. So finally, here’s some middle ground for all of us!
I have plans for my post-doctoral work. This will include a study of why East Coasters leave off the prepositions when using verbs of completion. For example, “I graduated college in 1999” or “I’m done lunch now.” Drives me nuts and every once in a while, I catch myself doing the same thing, which drives me even more crazy!
If you have read this far, I’m really impressed. I don’t often get to use my linguistics knowledge so it’s sort of fun to write about. And seriously, if I was ever to get a doctorate, I think it would be really interesting to get one in linguistics.