Monday, 6 June 2011

On on and on at

A correspondent writes to ask if he can say both ‘Open your book on page...‘ and ‘Open your book at page...’ Is there a difference?

Prepositions can reflect personal perspective, if a situation allows it. A book is such a situation. It’s both a physical object and a collection of content. Traditionally, the ‘at’ usage offers us the physical perspective.

I left my bookmark at page 60.
How far have you read? I’m at page 60.

It’s the usual use of ‘at’ to refer to location. The ‘on’ usage reflects content:

He makes an interesting point on page 60.
You'll find the answer on page 60.

People are more likely to refer to the content of a book than to its physical character, so we would expect ‘on’ to be more common.

‘Opening a book’ is an interesting example of overlap between the two perspectives. In one way it’s a reference to location - so, ‘at’. Most people would open a book ‘at’ a particular page. But people have a semantic reason for asking someone to open a book at a particular point - so ‘on’ isn’t ruled out. In the first case, they’re thinking ‘where’; in the second, they’re thinking ‘what’.

But I say, ‘traditionally’. While I don’t sense any change of usage in ‘on’ to refer to location, I do sense a change in ‘at’ with reference to content:

The footnote is at page 60 - instead of traditional ‘on’
You’ll find this at Chapter 3 - instead of traditional ‘in’

Here are some examples from Google:

I found the answer at page 8.
The earliest written account is at page 833 of...
The section dealing with... Darwin’s views is at page ...
You’ll find the answer at section 5...

Why? I think it’s the influence of the Internet, which has foregrounded the use of ‘at’ in fresh ways thanks chiefly to the use of @ and hash. The collocation of ‘find’, ‘at’, and ‘page’ is routine there, and is now being increasingly used offline.

There are several other contexts in which prepositional usage is overlapping on the Internet. I’ve just used one. ‘On’ the Internet? Type ‘find people on the Internet’ into Google and you get some 3 million hits. Type ‘find people in the Internet; and you get 6 million. You’ll find this post ‘on my blog’? ‘in my blog’? ‘at my blog’? Usage doesn't seem to have settled down yet.

33 comments:

Ken Wilson said...

Your eample:

How far have you read? I’m AT page 60?

'At'? Not 'on'? Any corpus evidence that your example is more common?

DC said...

I've not looked, but I'd expect 'on' to be much more frequent, as I suggest further down. I wasn't meaning to suggest that 'at' was the only usage in this example.

Anonymous said...

A nice entry, thank you so much, Mr. Crystal. I'm a Japanese English teacher. Sometimes I wonder I should say 'open your textbook 'on' or 'at' to my students. Then, how about 'to'? Some Japanese teachers (traditionally) say 'open your textbook to page 10'. Is it just an American English expression or do you find any difference?

DC said...

Feels like an interference usage to me - probably an analogy from 'Turn to page...'. It's not standard British or American.

Takeshi said...

Sorry, I forgot to put my name.

And, thank you so much for your quick reply.

The expression I questioned is probably a typical mistake we, Japanese, make or a phrase we believe is true( or standard).

Many Japanese English learners do not pay much attention to prepositions. That is why we cast no doubt on such an interference usage.

Amy Stoller said...

"Open your books to ... " is the most common usage in the US - at least, in the part where I grew up and still live. I've never heard "Open ... at" or "Open ... on." Are you sure "Open ... to" is non-standard?

Marc Leavitt said...

Professor Crystal:
I may be guilty of ideolectal heresy, or my usage may reflect the dialect of Central New Jersey, but I would almost never use 'at' in any of the examples you cited. Perhaps it has to do with books, but the 'feel' of 'at' in these contexts simply rings false to me. Could it resolve itself in a British/American usage split?

Rick Sprague said...

I went to school in central New York until 1969, and central Virginia after that. In both states, our teachers uniformly instructed us to open our books to a page, and neither "on" nor "at" is available in my idiolect. Are you sure "to" is not standard American? I find that hard to believe.

DC said...

Amy: No, I was just going on a couple of accounts I had to hand. Could well be a US / UK difference here.

DC said...

Marc: This seems to confirm the previous observation.

ms_well.words said...

Brilliant post from the Brit Eng perspective. English Language - don't you just love it?

Takeshi said...

I'm happy to see such an interesting argumentation starting from my comment. If the prepositions, 'in', 'at' and 'to' are acceptable, then I would like to see the differences among them in terms of meaning and forms. What is the reason why 'to' is accepted? Is that just because it is American English or 'to' has the notion of 'direction'?

Amy Stoller said...

Marc, Rick, and I grew up in the northeast US (New York City in my case). I wonder if "open ... to" is standard in the rest of the US.

Anonymous said...

I hope some readers from other parts of the US will put in their two-cents worth.

Anonymous said...

After over 60 years in the southern U.S. (Alabama, Tennessee, North Caroline and Virginia) I've only encountered "to" used with phrases like "open your books."

Jayarava said...

What about "on this view..." vs "in this view..." which academics use. I struggle to see a view as a surface to put something on!

sKim said...

I grew up in California and "open to page..." is what I always heard.

Anonymous said...

I grew up and now live in the U.S. Midwest, and went to university in New England. The only possibility in my dialect for opening a book is to a page, but I can refer to items either on or at a page.

Lee said...

This is how I understand the usage:

'To open a book on...' = open the book and turn to a specific page.

'Open a book at...' = the actual act of opening a book at a random page [of which we are informed.]

I doubt such a nuanced difference in meaning exists in any other language.

Sarah said...

My (British English) usage is to open a book 'at' a page and refer to a passage 'on' the page. I've never, as far as I can remember, heard anyone say open it 'on' or 'to' a page.

eMEL said...

Yes, I also use "open.. to". I'm Canadian, though.

danielzalec said...

My example application, just for fun: I found a book mentioned on the Internet, which I thought I would like. I ordered it. When it arrived, I immediately turned to page 5, since page 5 had been noted by a number of users online to contain the best passage in the whole book. When I was asked by my students why I was late to my lecture the following day, and why I was clutching my book so enthusiastically, I answered, "on page 5 of this book, you will find the answer to both of those questions." A little while later, one student called out, "Sir, I'm at page 5 now, but I can't see anything special on there." I said, "look again, kid. What you're looking for is in the final paragraph, on line 10, right at the bottom of the page."

goodenglishjaymah said...

I would say, 'open your book at page 60'. Or, 'Go to page 60'. And, 'I'm on page 60'. Or, 'I'm up to page 60'.

DC said...

Interesting as these last examples are, they don't help take forward the issue, because the correspondents don't tell us anything about who they are. In a usage discussion of this kind, it is essential that people say at the very least where they're from. But this point is too important to be buried in a forum comment. See next post.

danielzalec said...

Dear David, I should have specified, my example (above) was fictional (i.e. how "on" or "at" could possibly be applied, with the example being inspired by the original post and the subsequent comments. Forgive me.

As for who I am, my name is Daniel Zalec. I am a freelance writer/editor. I hold a BA (Literature & Composition) from Griffith University and an MA (Writing) from Swinburne University of Technology. You can Google "daniel zalec swinburne" or simply click on my name in this comments section, which will take you to my LiveJournal.

Hope this helps. Daniel.

DC said...

Thanks for that. I've now posted a general piece on the anonymity issue. In relation to that, it's not necessary, from a sociolinguistic point of view, to give one's name or contact details, but social data of a general kind - and certainly information about the status of a contribution - is important.

danielzalec said...

Thank you for clarifying, David. I will add, then, that I am Australian - born and raised in Australia, and still living in Australia.

goodenglishjaymah said...

Hi David, I too must apologise for not clarifying where I am from - I am also from Australia (currently, the Gold Coast) - I was introduced to this blog by Daniel Zalec. Hope that helps you identify the linguistic nuance of 'how I speak' !

Jessikat said...

I'm not quite sure usage will ever settle down. People aren't getting told what's right from the off (it's not like we've developed any internet-related grammar etiquette yet), and as native English speakers we don't tend to analyse how we're doing things.
Usage of prepositions always seems to blur, not just on the internet, though.

scepticalexpat said...

Commenting as a British academic living in America, 36yo, grew up in Lancashire.

I would always say 'I'm on page 36' to describe where I was up to in a book, as I would also say 'we're on series 4 of Grey's Anatomy' or 'I'm on level 4 of that game'.

Wrt 'at', I think there's a difference between normal usage and academic footnote usage. In a book group, or talking to a friend, or when communicating with my students either orally or in writing I think I'd say 'there's a good example on page 7'. But in a footnote I might well write 'see examples at pp. 7 and 17.' Don't know if I'm imagining this or whether others have noticed this phenomenon.

Hollis said...

I am an American military brat who attended public, private and Department of Defense (DOD) schools all over the U.S. and on Okinawa. When we opened our books TO a page and were ON that page, we would read.

Anonymous said...

We had some discussion about this at (in in American English?) our private language school in the US. The American teachers always say "open to page" whereas the Australians and British teachers say "open at page".

Dot said...

I'm a British academic living in Ireland. I too would say 'open your book at p. 40' (though how you could miraculously make your book fall open at the correct page without a spot of riffling, I'm not sure), 'turn to p. 40' and 'the passage is on p. 40'. But the usage 'at p. 40' for the location of a passage is a feature of some academic referencing-styles, for example the style used in the journal Anglo-Saxon England (which is British-based) e.g. C. B. Pasternack, 'Stylistic Disjunctions in The Dream of the Rood', ASE 13 (1984), 167-86 (at p. 170).