In Line and On Print, Prepositions Matter

Today in on Ben Yagoda's Lingua Franca blog, he brings up a matter of two little letters. When we're talking about websites and blogs, do we say "in" or "on"? Why is this different from how we talk about what we read in, say, books or newspapers?

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Today in a post on Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda refers back to Forrest Wickman's recent Slate article, the one in which Wickman humbly requests that people stop calling blog posts "blogs." (The blog is the equivalent of the newspaper, the blog post is the "article," as the reasoning goes, and I tend to agree.) But Yagoda brings something else up in this new discussion, and it's a matter I've considered previously. When we're talking about websites and blogs, do we say "in" or "on"? And why is this different from how we talk about what we read in, say, books or newspapers?

Yagoda writes, "The precedent of analog journalism, where one would talk about an article 'in The New Yorker' or 'in The New York Times'—or a chapter 'in a book,' for that matter—would suggest [we use, for example] 'in Slate.'” But more and more one hears or reads of someone's reading something 'on' a blog or online journal." He gives some examples: "on the Huffington Post," "on Politico." Perhaps this is for reasons as simple as the fact that the website you're reading appears to be flat, while the paper, magazine, or book you read really must be opened up to glean what's inside. It's an interesting shift, these two tiny letters, and one would imagine that as more and more websites (and perhaps fewer actual papers) are read, we'd naturally move to more and more on instead of in.

We're not there yet, though. Our prepositions, they die hard. (Imagine the horror you'd feel if someone confessed they read that "on Harry Potter"?) Yagoda writes that "on is still a minority choice for references to an online article. A Lexis-Nexis search of American newspapers yields 64 hits for 'an article in the Huffington Post' and 85 for 'an article in Slate' compared with only 40 and 48, respectively for 'an article on' those publications." He speculates that's because we're in a situation, really, of user's choice, and we go with our gut: "We still think of Slate or Huffington Post as containing a lot of individual pieces within them, and hence, for most of us, in still feels right." And maybe we're just a little bit more used to saying in with regard to the venues where we find our content. (Personally, "in Slate" sounds terribly wrong to me, but "in the Huffington Post" is passable, maybe because "Post" makes the Huffington more of a physical-sounding entity.)

Facebook uses on, writes Yagoda, providing the example at right, which could be something of a game-changer for mainstream prepositional usage. But sharing may complicate matters, as you can't share something "in," you can only share it "on," at least, in terms of the way we do social media these days (it's always "on Twitter" and never "in" it). Even more confusing is the question of the right preposition to use with an entity that is both online and in print. "I read that on The New York Times," sounds so wrong, but "I read that on The New York Times website," while formal, makes sense to me. If it appears in both places, you're not just saying you read something, the preposition can explain where you read it, as well.

Meanwhile, all the way back in 2004, Mark Liberman wrote "on a website" in a post on Language Log. On just feels natural, somehow. Yahoo believes in "on," because a website is more like a "TV channel." But as Yahoo Style Guide managing editor Heather Hutson pointed out in 2011, the prepositional question changes yet again when you're purchasing something online — you never say "I found it in," though you might say "I found it on," or even "I bought it at" Back to news and websites, you might say, "I read it at The Atlantic Wire" or "I saw that on the Atlantic Wire." But "I read it in the Atlantic Wire," to my ear, sounds very strange indeed.

Does it matter what preposition you use? I'd go back to the beauty of inconspicuously sharing with people how exactly you got your news (some people find this crucial to their jobs!), along with the importance of not sounding very strange to whomever you happen to be speaking. If more and more people are using on, on will likely dominate; if in is met with curious stares, its use may eventually cease. Either way, it's fascinating that there are clues in these prepositions, just two letters we frequently use without much thought at all but which are in fact very important. And, as Ben Zimmer wrote in 2010 on the matter of how we pluralize the word e-mail, technology is bound to change the way we use language. Some anecdotal rules of thumb: If you say "on," it probably means you've logged on. If you say "in," it probably means you opened something up. And if you say "at," you're probably dealing with some sort of purchase, bricks and mortar or online. For now, it seems that these three prepositions may be able to live together, albeit in tenuous conditions, on a blog.

*Tangentially related to the above is the age-old debate about whether one stands in or on line. Discuss amongst yourselves, and, if you like, on The New York Times website you can weigh in on which is better.  Prepositions. They matter.

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