Do You Say on the Weekend or at the Weekend?

A Blog About Language
Feb. 26 2014 10:21 AM

Do You Say on the Weekend or at the Weekend?

maggiesmith1
The Dowager Countess of Grantham is unfamiliar with the word weekend. We should all be so lucky.

Recently over dinner, several Americans and a Canadian got into a discussion with an Irishman and an Australian about weekends. Since all of the participants were linguists, the conversation centered on prepositions: Were we having dinner on a weekend in February or at a weekend in February? The North Americans voted for on, a choice that the Irishman found preposterous. "A weekend," he observed, "is not a surface."

He was forced, however, to admit that the appropriate usage is on Saturday, not at Saturday, and on Sunday, not at Sunday. "So," countered one of the Americans, "Saturday is a surface, and Sunday is a surface, but their combination is not a surface?"

An attempt ensued to achieve descriptive consistency. It was agreed that times within the day generally take at (at 9:30, at noon, at dawn, at dinner, at night), except for those that take in with the definite article (in the morning, in the evening); days generally take on (on Monday, on her birthday, on Valentine's Day); months and seasons and years and centuries generally take in (in December, in winter, in 1893, in the 15th century). And never mind the (generally relative) time references that don't take any preposition at all, like tomorrow, next week, or three days ago.

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This all hints at a coherent metaphor:

    - Hours and other short periods of time are generally places;
    - Days are surfaces;
    - Months and longer time periods of time are containers.

But it seems that only North Americans apply this logic to weekends. Those of us, anyway, who are unfortunate enough to know what a weekend is:

A version of this post appeared on Language Log.

Mark Liberman is a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Linguistics Data Consortium.

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