Uncovering linguistic layers

From time to time a student composing an essay asks: “Shall I write in the street or on the street?”  As I don’t want to disturb the others by long lectures on prepositions, I usually say: “You can use both. Just choose”. I know it’s not quite accurate but I don’t think it’s a big deal either, at least at lower levels of proficiency.

As far as I remember, the way I learned this piece of lexicogrammar at school was something along the lines: in the street is mainly used in British English and be on the street(s) means be homeless. Let’s have a closer look.

First of all, it seems that there is some difference between the phrase including a singular noun (street) and the phrase including a plural form of the noun.

Regarding the phrases including the singular form of the noun, in the street, according to the first graph below, was more frequent till about 1980 but then on the street, which, by the way, was almost non-existent back in 1800, started winning the race. I learned this by checking out Google Ngram Viewer (thanks, Sandy Millin, for sharing this). Anyway, after a rather sharp decline around 1945, a sudden increase in the use of on the street can be seen, precisely around 1965. One wonders why; has the issue of homelessness become more pressing recently ?


Now, looking at the phrase including the plural form of the noun, I can see that in the streets has consistently been more frequent than one the streets. Like on the street, on the streets was almost non-existent in 1800 (see the second graph 2 below).


If you look at some concordance lines of the chunk on the street(s), you will discover that, indeed, it is often related to homelessness.

  • She spends several years on the streets.
  • To fear being thrown on the street?
  • The average person on the street are not scientists
  • She was better off on the streets.
  • Will they sleep on the streets tonight?
  • A young girl who lives on the streets.

Things shift a bit if you add a little function word, though. If you search the phrase in the streets *of*, the most frequent right collocates are usually (and quite obviously) places/towns. The same happens with on the streets *of*. When studying the concordance lines, I didn’t discover any difference in connotation between these two chunks other than the number of hits per million. The chunk on the streets *of* is more frequent than in the streets *of*.


What is interesting though is that the preposition *of* strips the phrase on the streets of its exclusivity related to the connotation of homelessness. In other words, it seems to me that it brings closer the connotations of in the streets and on the streets, i.e. the preposition simply doesn’t matter anymore.

I can’t help feeling that I’m only moving on the surface of the problem and that there’s much more behind it. Some of my conclusions may even be inaccurate and incomplete. Still, it’s a great adventure to slowly uncover the linguistic layers. What’s more, I’m learning a lot along the way.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
This entry was posted in Corpora, Grammar, Linguistic issues, Uncategorized, Vocabulary. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Uncovering linguistic layers

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi Hana
    that’s interesting you picked up the idiomatic form of “on the street”; i looked at non-idiomatic forms which suggested that UK English prefers “in the street” whilst US English prefers “on the street” – BYU-COCA Corpus Query 1[https://plus.google.com/u/0/+MuraNava/posts/Zy4fyxdiYtj?sfc=true]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. M. Makino says:

    Perhaps it has to do with a plebian ethos more common in the US? “street” is even an adjective in the US and to my ears has more in common with “on the street” than “in the street”.


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