On or in?


Lately I've caught myself vacillating between the words on and in when writing. The quandary, tiny though it is, must have used a good 55 seconds of my time over the last couple of weeks.

I say, I read such-and-such in the newspaper, or in the New Scientist. Then I catch myself saying, I read such-and-such on the New York Times.

On the New York Times? Strange picture that produces, isn't it? As if the article was a message in scrabble tiles scattered all over a newspaper. Or written on a Post-it attached to the newspaper.

Of course it's because I read some things on paper (like the New Scientist or Elizabeth Knox's latest novel, The Angel's Cut). Whatever I read there is firmly, physically inside the covers. But wait a minute. How about paper newspapers? In the Dominion Post, something on (on) the front page is not literally inside a physical object, but on the outside. Oh no, that's nit-picking.

But the New York Times I read online. I read articles on the NYT web site. I guess that's what's happening to my semantic choices.

This silliness is a canary in a coal mine. If I'm momentarily confused, so are thousands of others, no doubt. And one day we might all be saying, I read it on the newspaper.

That will not be hard for people using English as an international language. They won't mind if they themselves use the wrong preposition. The meaning will still be clear, which is more important.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


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