The phrase ‘on accident’ and ‘by accident’ are both used in American English, but only the phrase ‘by accident’ is the correct usage. While the phrase ‘on accident’ is not correct, it is commonly used by Americans in spoken English.
Keep reading to learn more about the difference in the phrases, mnemonic phrases to help choose the correct version, and why one is incorrect but is still used in spoken language.
What does ‘by accident’ mean?
Both of the phrases ‘by accident’ and ‘on accident’ are used interchangeably in America to mean that the same as the single adverb ‘accidentally’. The word accidentally means not on purpose. Historically, Americans have put either ‘by’ or ‘on’ in front of the adverb in order to make it sound more elegant.
Some examples of using ‘by accident’ would be,
I knocked over the glass by accident and it broke.
My foot slipped off of the pedal by accident and I bumped the car in front of me.
These same examples can be shortened to use ‘accidentally’ instead of ‘by accident’ and would still have the same meaning.
What does ‘on accident’ mean?
While ‘on accident’ means the same as ‘by accident’ and ‘accidentally’, the usage is improper in standard English. The main reason that it ‘on’ and ‘by’ get confused is because of the phrase ‘on purpose’.
‘On purpose’ and ‘on accident’ are both used in the American English spoken language. The phrase ‘on purpose’ means doing something purposefully. While ‘on purpose’ is an acceptable use of language, ‘on accident’, used interchangeably, is not.
The adverb ‘on purpose’ is only heard throughout American English speakers. If you were to have these same American English speakers write the same spoken sentence, 90% of the time, they will use the correct ‘by accident’ phrase.
How to remember which phrase to use
There are many different rules to speaking, reading, and writing throughout the English language. One of the most difficult languages in the world to learn for non-native speakers, the English language is full of fun little ways to remember proper word usage.
When trying to remember the correct adverb usage for accidentally, remember that the word ‘by’ comes before the word ‘on’ alphabetically. Therefore, you should use ‘by’ before ‘on’. Remember, if you’re in doubt about which word to use, don’t use ‘by’ or ‘on’, just use the word ‘accidentally’ instead.