en » on, in

Chiefly in:   in/on route (to) , on mass , on masse

Classification: English – cross-language

Spotted in the wild:

  • “4. pause made on route: a place where a bus or a train regularly pauses on its route” (link)
  • “I have titled my remarks, ‘In Route to the Presidency: Some Ideas of Mine.’” (link)
  • “So why, other than a liberal media’s pro-gay sensibilities, would the camera crews descend on masse in Laramie but not on Rogers, Arkansas, where Jesse Dirkhising suffocated to death while his assailant had a sandwich?” (National Review Online, March 23, 2001)
  • “It’s horrifying to think that is was only fifty years ago that people in Western countries were being treated so savagely, that even young children were being killed on mass just because of their religious beliefs.” (link)
  • “The world is, unfortunately, FILLED with dictators and/or terrorists who kill on mass and at will.” (villagesoup.com, Sep 16, 2005)

Analyzed or reported by:

  • David Fenton (Usenet newsgroup soc.motss, 22 September 2005)
  • MWDEU (Article on "en route")
  • Paul Brians (Common Errors in English)

David Fenton asked Chris Waigl and me: “Is there a mixed usage of “en route”, “in route” and “on route” that is common, or am I hearing a connection between three independent phrases that doesn’t really exist?” It turns out that the “on” and “in” variants of the French “en” are very frequent indeed; raw Google web hits for “— route to” on 22 September 2005:

en route to: 5,930,000
on route to: 265,000
in route to: 192,000

A quick glance at a sampling of the “on” and “in” examples should convince anyone that these expressions are synonymous. The version with “in” translates the French literally. The version with “on” is an especially good translation of French “en”, since it occurs
with the English noun “route” in expressions like “on the/our route to Vancouver” (where French “en” is just unacceptable, in writing or speech). Note the nice juxtaposition of “on route” with “on its route” in the first cite above, from the MSN Encarta dictionary’s entry for the noun “stop”. In any case, both “on” and “in” represent attempts to Anglicize, and make sense of, the French expression, and both are phonologically very close to French “en”.

This reshaping seems to have gotten by under almost everybody’s radar (neither of the Anglicized variants is in the current OED, and even Garner doesn’t complain about them), though at least two of the standard sources mention it: Brians instructs us not to Anglicize “en” in “en route” as “in”, and MWDEU has an unusually stern entry labeling “on route” as an “embarrassing error” and cautioning: “Authors and proofreaders beware.” (Brians doesn’t mention the “on” variant, and MWDEU doesn’t mention the “in” variant.) Despite them, I think that these variants are fast edging into the mainstream.

[CW, 2005/09/27: Added “on mass(e)”, as suggested by Sandi in the comment section. The partially Anglicised form “on masse” might simply be a misspelling of the French preposition _en_, though.]

| link | entered by Arnold Zwicky, 2005/09/22 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Nigel Pond , 2005/09/23 at 5:41 pm

    Isn’t this one just a result of ignorance of the correct French spelling and pronunciation?

  2. 2

    Commentary by Sandi , 2005/09/27 at 12:49 am

    I have seen the similar misuse of on replacing en for the expression en masse. Less commonly I’ve seen on mass.

  3. 3

    Commentary by Jim Tyson , 2005/09/27 at 3:09 pm

    I also suggest lexical-semantic interference here from on course. Look at the example

    En route here would - for me - be very odd anyway. En route doesn’t have the strong connotation of correct or planned direction that on course does.

  4. 4

    Commentary by Arnold Zwicky , 2005/09/27 at 6:04 pm

    Nigel Pond’s commentary is unhelpful, because all eggcorns are errors of ignorance: someone is ignorant of the fact that (most) other people analyze, pronounce, and/or spell certain expressions differently from them. We might as well add, for every genuine eggcorn entry, the note that “this one is just the result of ignorance”.

    As for “the correct French pronunciation and spelling”, what’s at issue here is not how these things work in French, but how they work in English. I would judge anyone who pronounced “en route” in “We were en route to Philadelphia” as in French — with a uvular trill, a “pure” (monophthongal) [u], and a dental, rather than alveolar, [t] — to be absurdly affected. (The citations in the OED no longer italicize the expression — no longer mark it as foreign — by the mid-20th century.)

    The word “route” ‘way, road, course’ has been around in English since the 13th century, and has the same meaning (and spelling) outside the idiom “en route” as it does in it, so it naturally has the same pronunciation in both contexts. The only issue is the identity and spelling of the preposition in the idiom; in pronunciation it is at least sometimes homophonous (or very nearly so) with English “on” for almost all modern speakers of English, at least before a consonant (as in “en route”). As a result, it’s natural to nativize the idiom fully, replacing the non-English preposition by an English one. Just think of it as a calque on the French idiom, rather than as an occurrence of it.

    There is of course no reason to object to the spelling “en”, as a little reminder of the expression’s history. But I’m puzzled by the scorn heaped on those who have fully nativized the idiom’s spelling (and pronunciation).

  5. 5

    Commentary by Marnen Laibow-Koser , 2006/12/21 at 6:53 pm

    I agree with Arnold here: while there may be some eggcornish behavior here, this looks like a foreign-language idiom being nativized. It happens that the English calque sounds nearly the same as the original French, which probably makes the translation easier to accept.

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