Learning which preposition to use in a language, and in which context, often involves learning some general rules of thumb (which often differ greatly from language to language) and many detailed rules that typically seem arbitrary.
For a small example of this, consider how you talk in English about what you did, will do, or regularly do during the weekend. Speakers of British English typically use ‘at the weekend’ but speakers of American English typically say ‘on the weekend’. Data from Google’s NGRAM viewer shows this difference clearly in figures 1 (for British English) and 2 (American English). The red line is for ‘at the weekend’ and the blue line is for ‘on the weekend’.
Neither of these forms is better or more logical than the other. British English simply uses one more or less arbitrary convention, but American English uses a different one.
A published summary
In British or American English? A handbook of word and grammar patterns (2006, pages 44 and 163), John Algeo says:
- Before (the) weekend(s), the favoured preposition is at in British English but over, on or during in American English.
- At the weekends and on the weekend have similar frequencies in British English. On weekends is twice as frequent as either of them.
- In American English on the weekend and on weekends have similar frequencies. At the weekends is very rare.
I’m not sure my own (British) usage tallies with Algeo’s findings:
- I use at the weekend if I’m am talking about a single past or future weekend, usually next weekend or last weekend, though it could be a single specified weekend in the more remote future or more remote past.
- I use at weekends or at the weekend referring to recurring habitual events.
- I believe I don’t ever use at the weekends. I think this is because the definite article the would single out one particular weekend or particular weekends—and doing this would clash with using the plural to refer to recurring habitual events.
- I believe I don’t ever use the preposition on with (the) weekend(s).
- I use over or during to emphasise that an event will occur, did occur or habitually occurs at some point during the course of the weekend (or occasionally in referring to habitual recurring events). I think I am more likely to use over in referring to an event that has a longer duration (or that occurs in instalments) and during for an event with a shorter duration.
A change in progress?
‘On the weekend’ still sounds unnatural to my British ears. But I increasingly hear younger speakers of British English (teenagers and young adults) say ‘on the weekend’, perhaps because of exposure to American English. Maybe in a few decades we will all be saying ‘on the weekend’ on both sides of the Atlantic.
For once Chinese is easier. ‘Zai’ (4th tone) 在 is used for all positional and temporal locations.
Thanks for pointing this out, Richard. A quick look at the grammars and usage guides I have readily available seems to confirm this.
I’ve partly written a piece on expressing time in Polish, which is at the other end of the spectrum: one preposition for 2 of the seasons but a different preposition for the other 2; and before days of the week, one preposition takes one case (accusative) before some days but a different case (locative) before other days.
This post got me thinking about the preposition I would use when referring to ‘what you did, will do, or regularly do during the weekend’.
When referring to weekend activities past and future (what I did and what I will do), I think my normal choice of preposition would be ‘for’. I would talk about ‘what I am planning to do for the weekend’. Describing my activities during the weekend immediately past, I would probably talk about ‘what I did for the weekend’. In those cases, I think ‘on’ would be a close second choice in my grammar.
I am less confident about the preposition I’d use in the case of regularly recurring weekend activities. Most likely, I would pluralise ‘weekends’ and use either ‘for’ or ‘on’ and drop the article (‘the’): ‘what I do on weekends’ or ‘what I do for weekends’. Indeed, when speaking of recurring weekend activities, I might drop both the preposition and the article altogether: ‘what I do weekends’.
I am an American raised and educated through high school in New York City and suburbs. I don’t know whether an American’s choice of preposition in these cases is regionalised. I am quite sure I’d never refer to what I did or will do ‘at weekend’ or ‘at ‘weekends’.
Your Ngram data examined ‘on’ and ‘at’. I ran Ngrams for those two plus ‘for’, separately for English worldwide, American English, and British English. Here’s what I found:
English Worldwide American English British English
On the weekend 0.0000387 0.0000500 0.0000281
For the weekend 0.0000969 0.0001032 0.0001125
At the weekend 0.0000274 0.0000113 0.0000930
On weekends 0.0001040 0.0001696 0.0000657
For weekends 0.0000061 0.0000071 0.0000094
At weekends 0.0000324 0.0000119 0.0001147
At weekend 0.0000010 0.0000011 0.0000016
I don’t have much experience with Ngrams, so I hope I am interpreting the data properly. I would draw the following conclusions from Google’s data:
1. When referring to what they did or will do during a specific weekend:
Both Americans and Britishers are most likely to write ‘for the weekend’, with ‘at the weekend’ the second choice in British English and ‘on the weekend’ the second choice in American English.
2. When referring to what they regularly do during weekends:
Americans are most likely to write ‘on weekends’ while Britishers are most like to write ‘at weekends’. Usage of ‘at weekend’ is much rarer.
Aware of the French Academy’s aversion to Franglais, for fun I also ran Ngrams for ‘weekend’, ‘week-end’, and ‘fin de semaine’ (without the definite article) in 2019 French-language publications. I found:
Fin de semaine 0.0001533
The usage of the two Franglais versions combined is about twice that of the French term. There’s an even greater disparity in spoken French, I’d suspect. Nonetheless, officially you won’t be able to do le camping or eat le hotdog during le weekend.
I didn’t consider ‘for the weekend’. To my ear, that implies quite strongly an activity that will last the whole weekend (or at least substantially all of the weekend so that other lengthy activities are excluded. so I would talk about going away for the weekend, or watching a box set for the weekend (not that I’ve ever done that last one). ‘At the weekend’ would cover a shorter activity, say an hour or two or perhaps a few hours.
I can’t think of a context when I would say ‘for weekends or just ‘weekends’ with no preposition.
And on the subject of not using a preposition, what about days of the week? I still find it slightly jarring to hear American reporters talk about events on a particular day of the week with no preposition. For me, the only form that sounds natural is ‘on Friday’, not simply ‘Friday’.
I haven’t used NGRAM a huge amount and I certainly haven’t dug into it enough to derive anything rigorous from it. But it does throw up some interesting hints about possible trends, changes and relative frequencies.