Saturday, February 7, 2015

Idiomatic Words

It's probably because of my phone's autocorrect, but I've been thinking about in and on a lot lately. (Not to mention if and of.) Why, oh why, did the devilish English language have to evolve these often-used small words to the point where their spellings differ only by one vowel? And why do those vowels have to sit next to each other on a standard keyboard?

I'm sure it's an exaggeration, but it seems as though half the messages I write on my phone say in when I meant on. You see, the "o" is just a bit further from the center line, so my clumsy finger drags over the "i" first and Apple's vaunted autocorrect feature can't sort out whether I want in or on.

But then, why should a phone be able to sort out that choice when the reason for it often doesn't make sense anyway?

Why do we ride on a bus even though we are inside it?

Why am I on my computer right now? (Although I guess it's better than being in my computer.)

Why do we wait in line, unless we're in the New York City area, in which case we wait on line? (I wonder if America Online had trouble selling connections in the New York area, because everyone thought it had something to do with waiting.)

Boats can be in or on the water.

With dates it gets even more complicated: You'll arrive in August but on August 23.

These choices are based on nothing except convention. I'll bet they're hard for new English speakers to learn and remember since they're essentially arbitrary.  Daily Writing Tips gives these guidelines: In relates to place, time, manner, and reference, while on indicates place, time, reference, and condition. See how three of the four for each are… the same? Yet as a native speaker, when I look at their examples, I have no trouble sorting them out:

Place: He lives in the country vs. He sat on the fence.
Time: I'll be there in an hour vs. He was not thinking well on that occasion.
Reference: In my opinion we need a referendum vs. We'll hire him on your recommendation.
It's funny to think of sitting in the fence or living on the country — though you can be on the lam in the country. Living on the country even has connotations of living off the country's taxpayers.

To make the boat example even trickier, Daily Writing Tips says:
As for the example about the boat, either is correct, according to what is meant:

    The boat is in the water. (As opposed to being on dry land for the winter)
    The boat is on the water. (Look at all those boats out there on the water!)

However, it would be unidiomatic to say The ship is in the ocean or in the sea, unless you mean that it has sunk. The ship is on the sea.
Whew! Watch out for in and on -- one wrong letter and you can sink a ship.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

When I type on my iPhone, I inevitably end up with i for o. Truly, it’s the i-o-S operating system.

And with the prepositions: we get on a bus but in a car. And off a bus but out of a car.