Monday, 29 July 2013

On on or in the Internet

A correspondent writes to ask about which preposition to use in relation to the Internet: is it on or in?

Both are used, but on is hugely predominant. This is to be expected: on is the normal preposition when talking about specific communications media that operate through transmission: on TV, on the radio, on the phone - and thus, on the Web, on Facebook, on Youtube - and on the Internet. Metaphorical expressions reinforce the usage: one surfs on the Internet. And the governing organizations, such as ICANN, all talk in this way.

The competition from in has come from the physical forms of communication where one can look 'inside'. So, one finds something in a book, in a magazine, in a newspaper, and so on. The metalanguage of the print medium early influenced the description of online outputs, with talk of 'pages', and the like, so it's easy to see how an alternative usage would develop. And if one looks in a book, then there is an analogy motivating doing something in a location named after a book - Facebook. This is reinforced by the actual process of opening up a website and looking inside it to find information.

I use both prepositions, in this respect, depending on the semantics of what I have in mind. I say to people that they will find something on my website and also in my website, depending on whether I am thinking of the website as a single location or as a container of data. Same applies to blogging: you will find this post on my blog as well as in my blog. This isn't the first time such an alternative has emerged in English: one can find a place on a map of Britain or in a map of Britain.

Two other factors have reinforced the growth of in. We see it when people think of the Internet as a physical phenomenon, such as when writing programmes - another application of the 'looking inside' motif. I'm less certain about the second point, but I have the impression that in has become the item of choice among non-native English-users who are uncertain of which preposition to use, and who see conflicting usage online. I'd be interested to hear opinions on this point.

15 comments:

Victoria Shpakova said...

I quite agree about non-native users for the simple reason of L1 inteference. Cannot talk about other languages, but in Russian we use the equivalent of "in" with the Internet.

Linda Aragoni said...

In American English idioms, being in a net is rarely good; think of a fishing net, butterfly net.

Being on a net is better. One is rescued by being on a safety net.

Emilio Márquez said...

Cannot talk about other languages (except for Russian), but in Spanish we use the equivalent of "in" with the Internet: “in/on my blog” = “en mi blog” [en mi ˈblɔɣ].

Marc Leavitt said...

David:
I blog "on" the Internet. As you say, the use of "in" depends on semantics.

mocshire said...

As Victoria Shpakova says, L1 interference is an issue, at least for me, because Mexican Spanish speakers tend to translate and to use a reduced amount of words to express different ideas eventhogh there are so many words to express specific ideas.

boogiebabe said...

"In my website" and "in a map" both sound rather unnatural to me, "in a map" if anything more so, but I'm happy to accept that there might be versions of English in which they are common. On a slight tangent, the discussion is making me remember a Luxemburgish friend many years ago, who spoke almost perfect English, but once told me about a ring she like to wear "in this finger"...

Russell said...

I have to admit I'd never even thought of "in the internet" as being something people use, and certainly can't recall hearing it. A quick look at the Corpus of Contemporary America shows "on the internet" as occurring 5755 times in the sample (400 million words) whereas "in the internet" only scrapes 271. And of those, a significant number are part of the phrase "in the internet age" or "in the internet search," i.e. when it's being used adjectivally and not as a noun. The Corpus of Global Web-based English (1.9 billion word sample) has "in the internet" at 45,818 instances and "on the internet" at 3506, with the adjectival use of "internet" predomincating. So maybe being "in" is linked to the adjective use, not the noun. Mmmh.

Y. Nakata said...

Professor Crystal

I found more than 200 examples of "on the Internet" but only 8 examples of "in the Internet" in online English expression glossary EIJIROU which is a popular tool in Japan.

I think that EIJIROU users would choose "on the Internet" as the right answer.The RIGHT answer.

You told that the choice between in and on depends on sematic. In Japan, however, beginner level English learners like me often look a main usage as only one appropriate usage. So some EIJIROU users might use "on the Internet" in every situation that they would encounter.

I think that this is partly because of our entrance examination's style which requires only one right answer in many questions. In Tokyo, bookstores have a wide variety of English exercise books but much less books which tell about nuance coming from small differences in English expression.

LD said...

I tend to use 'on' rather than 'in', but I would use 'in the blog' (as well as 'on') - it seems similar to saying 'in this week's column' or 'in the article'. Perhaps blogs seem more similar to print media, whereas things like Youtube and Facebook do not...

SuperCroup said...

While words for new things when the WWW first emerged were based on print media, I think it's useful to consider that the Internet is primarily screen-based, and we talk about things being "on" a screen.

I have to say, I've never heard "in the internet", but I consider the norms for other things in/on the internet to be "in": we send something thing in an email, meet people in chat rooms, and read something in a tweet.

Destination Infinity said...

'on' feels very formal. 'in' feels casual. Depending on the context (official writing, personal blog), I use both.

Anonymous said...

I am Spanish, and 'in the Internet' sounds a bit extrange todo me.

Kate Joy said...

You were right about non-native English speakers. Russian native speakers tend to use 'in' rather than 'on'. To be honest, I have never thought about using 'on' till now. It is possible that I met the usage of the preposition 'on' refering to the internet in press, but didn't pay much attention to it because 'in' sounds very natural for Russian speakers. But what is more interesting is how I found this blog. I met the usage of the preposition 'at' by an english teacher (who is russian as well) and that sounded very unnatural for me. So I started searching and ...thank you for this article!

Frances Gomez said...

Hi! What I explain to my students is we use "on" for media. Like "on the radio", "on TV", "log on the internet". I admit in our L1 we get confused with the prepositions "in", "on" and "at".

Anonymous said...

Hi,
we use to say "on TV", "on channel 5", so it appears logical that most people would use "on the Internet" as they use it as it was an information channel. However, those of us more into programming languages, data structures and algorithms or hardware - same with nerds that know how to repair a broken TV - the INSIDERS so to say are "in the Internet".
Whether you use "in" or "on" tells something about your relationship with the Internet.
We Germans always use "im Internet" == "in the Internet" and never "auf dem Internet" but we use always "auf der Webseite" == "on the website".