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Which of "on par with" and "on a par with" is the more correct way of saying that two things are of equal value, and why?

Examples from a couple of google searches:

  • "His verbal intelligence was not on a par with his maths"
  • "Arctic sea ice melting on par with 2007 record"
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I think it's is General Reference that #2 is "newspaper headline style", which commonly omits articles in this way. –  FumbleFingers Feb 10 '13 at 22:20
    
(to save valuable space in headlines) –  amanda witt Feb 10 '13 at 22:41
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+1 Leave open. The question is about "on par" versus "on a par" generally, not just about the examples. This is not a general reference question just on the observation that one sample text turns out to be in headline style. (It's not a general reference question anyway, because general reference does not mean "common knowledge", it means "there's an entry in a reputable online reference work that directly answers this question".) –  MετάEd Feb 11 '13 at 5:01
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Those who thought this was GR may try and answer it now. –  Kris Feb 11 '13 at 6:32
    
@MετάEd: You've only captured half of the definition there, the other half being "this question is too basic." If general reference simply meant "an entry in a reputable online reference work that directly answers this question", then I think a LOT more questions could be closed. For example, single word requests can be found in a dictionary, but no one wants to start at aardvark and keep reading until the right word is found. I think GR implies "too basic" first, with the "single reference" part being a confirmation of that overly fundamental nature. Just my interpretation. –  J.R. Feb 12 '13 at 9:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

You should favour "on a par with", because it's the more commonly used expression, and has been around as such for a long time (longer than the game of golf, on which more in a moment).

It can be abbreviated to "on par with" for headline-style abbreviations. You should only do that in headlines.

In golf, it is normal to talk both of a player being "on par" meaning that they took the number of strokes that is the standard measure for the course in question, and also that they are "on par with" another player, meaning that they are currently (or finished) with an equal number of strokes. Because of this you will sometimes find "on par with" used figuratively for other contexts even outside of headline style and golf.

But since that remains a less common use, I'd still advise you to favour "on a par with" in your own writing.

Ngrams don't mean everything, but this chart suggests a strong preference for "on a par with" for both British and American use.

enter image description here

The Corpus of Contemporary American English finds 370 uses of "on a par with" to 348 of "on par with", or 322 to 272 if we exclude spoken news, sports magazines, and sports newspapers to reduce those using the term as golf jargon. Less strong a preference as found in ngrams, but still suggesting "on a par with" is the more common form.

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@Jim it does even before that, but it's got some way to go. –  Jon Hanna Feb 11 '13 at 8:54
    
I think it's worth noting here that the declining usage of on a par with that @Jim mentioned is very much american-led. As of 2008 the usage ratio according to ngrams is ~2:1 for en_us and ~9:1 for en_gb. –  je4d Feb 11 '13 at 12:55

If you are writing for someone in the States, "on par with" is the best choice. The phrase "on a par with" is seldom used. But it looks like it is used more across the pond in the beautiful British Isles. However, if you are writing an academic piece, I'd avoid it altogether and use "at the same level".

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I can find plenty of American uses, from James Madison arguing that the United States should ratify the Constitution, through to the present day. While Americans do seem to favour "on a par with" over "on par with" less than the British, they do still seem to favour it. –  Jon Hanna Feb 11 '13 at 1:40
    
Also, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary offers this definition of "par": "2 : common level : EQUALITY — usu. use with 'on' <judged the recording to be on a par with previous ones>." House style at the U.S. magazine where I work is to use "on a par with," not "on par with." As J.R. notes in another answer, confusion is likely due to the operation of such phrases as "up to par" and "under par." –  Sven Yargs Feb 11 '13 at 3:22
    
That Merriam-Webster's definition should say "usu. used"—not "usu. use." –  Sven Yargs Feb 11 '13 at 3:24

NOAD lists four idiomatic usages of the word par:

enter image description here

My guess is, if the use of an article seems inappropriate, that's because you're confusing on a par with with above par or up to par.

In short, this looks like a case where the inclusion (or exclusion) of an article depends on the choice of preposition. As for the usage in your question:

Arctic sea ice melting on par with 2007 record

I agree with the comment made by FumbleFingers – that looks like a headline as opposed to a complete sentence.

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