Monday, January 31, 2011

Grammar slammer: in/out or on/off

This past Saturday I had a chat with a Jordanian barista with AMAZING English. He said he'd been in the US for 6 months and had studied the language conversationally in Jordan with other English-speakers for only a few months prior to that. I'm always amazed by people who are adaptive linguists. I am not. Like many things in my life, I can be clunkily adept at something only after a lot of repetition and even then am best when I can do one thing over and over again until it comes "naturally".

Aaaaanyway, my new barista friend was joking about all the painful English idioms he'd encountered that make no sense nor do they follow language rules that are uniformly enforced. Having (briefly) studied his native Arabic, I can see his point.

My favorite of his idiomatic head slappers: We get in and out of a car, but on and off of a bus, train, or airplane. Why?

I have it on good authority that Brits say things like "on" line instead of "in" line for a queue. (Also, they use the word queue.)

I know there are English idiom books and studies out there that would, at length, answer any query I encounter, but it's more fun (for me) to ask you what you think?


  1. I think it's to do with the nature of the conveyance. Cars are small and personal; buses, trains and planes are (usually) large and community-oriented. Plus, they are more modern, whereas a car is just a modern version of a carriage or coach. I wonder which version was used for a carriage pre-1800? I know how the romance novelists phrase it, but I'd have to go back to Jane Austen to see how it really was.

  2. Possibly. But we go in and out of public buildings...or any building. On & off of bicycles as well. On the pogostick; in the bat-cave, cathedral...on the dromedary, on the ferris wheel, in the voting booth. Maybe it's a height thing?

  3. New Yorkers wait "on" line, I am told. As far as bikes, buses, and pogo sticks are concerned, they are like horses. They must be mounted.