Thursday, August 18, 2011

Grammar Tip: On vs. Upon

I recently worked on editing a book where the author consistently used upon where my natural inclination was to use on. So I did a little digging and discovered that...well, there isn't much out there on the difference.

The dictionary saved the day: MW explains that upon means on, with other definitions considered obsolete.

A few forums took it a step further and explained that upon is considered more formal than on and should be reserved for set expressions (once upon a time...) and more formal settings (legalese!).

In short, if you aren't telling a story and you aren't obsessed with your own intelligence, don't use upon. It doesn't make you sound smarter...it makes you sound stuck-up.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the help!

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Upon" is the most over used word in the English language since so many use it to sound formal when it is not needed. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks a bunch! I agree, there's not much out there on this and I appreciate your summary here.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Upon and On do have different contextual uses, not rules just "Upon" is usually used in a conditional instance; ex: "the agreement is contingent upon", "Once Upon a time". Something needs to happen or change, whether it be the setting of a story or a catalyst. "On" can be used in more scenarios, such as physical i.e. "the kettle is on the stove" or conversational idioms: "I'm on it". Though, there will never be confusion over the meaning of a thought by substituting "Upon" for "On" or vice versa. I do agree that substituting "upon" for "on" when speaking casually - not referring to specific contexts or scenarios - could result in a disjointed tone and the word would seem out of place. I wouldn't necessarily judge someone's intelligence or intent on their use of these words, but different people have different grammer peevs.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Eh...I tend to disagree. Words are words; they are meant to be used. Grammar rules and our opinions on them and word choice are all artificial human constructions, so, really, none of us are right.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Respectfully disagree- they're interchangeable- use whichever is more familiar

    ReplyDelete
  7. I avoid the use of "upon" whenever possible. But sometimes, one just has to! I just copy edited a piece, in which the beginning phrase of a sentence contained the words "on" and "at," and a second "on." However, the two "on's" had different meanings. I had to change one to "upon" in order to make the sentence not only read and flow better, but to avoid confusing the reader!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Just finished a debate with a first-time business book co-author who used 'upon' throughout the 200+ pages that I just edited. Glad to have something to back up my points that using 'upon' instead of 'on' is too formal for his book and needless extra words to add to his companion website. Your summary certainly helped me make my point. Now if we could just get more people to understand how to correctly use the word 'which' when 'that' is the proper word.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Once on a time" makes sense to you?

    ReplyDelete
  10. I am curious how the phrase "Once upon a time" would be written by substituting "on" for "upon"? Or, how would the Christmas carol "It came upon a midnight clear" sound as "It came on..."? These may be considered formal usage, but it seems like there are cases where "upon" just fits better in the flow and context of the phrase.

    ReplyDelete
  11. If you look at the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) 5.220, it suggests that the difference between the two is that "upon" introduces an event or condition (e.g., you'll get paid upon the job's completion). This is still only relatively helpful because "condition" could be construed a number of ways. Is it only a temporal nature like in this example, or could it be a condition "upon which you depend" ("We depended upon my income")? So there's another perspective, for however helpful it is, or isn't. I struggle with this as an editor too.

    ReplyDelete