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  • Which one is correct?
  1. I go to school by foot.
  2. I go to school on foot.
  • Are there instances when the expression by foot is preferred?

My last question is the following:

  • Why is the singular noun, foot, used?

If a person goes to school by bus/train/car they are using only one means of transport, they are travelling in one car not two. But people use both feet for walking, so why would the following expressions be ungrammatical?

  1. I go to school by feet
  2. I go to school on feet

I read the answers on this question why is it always "on foot" not "on feet"? but they did not convince me.

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This question has an open bounty worth +350 reputation from Mari-Lou A ending in 5 days.

The question is widely applicable to a large audience. A detailed canonical answer is required to address all the concerns.

I have blended a second question, which is closely related, to make the post more challenging for our more experienced users. A canonical answer is required once and for all.

and kindly add a little bit description that why is it used – aliya Mar 25 '11 at 18:51
OALD and Collins have only "on foot". There is no entry for "by foot". – rogermue Jul 22 at 17:00
on foot: Technically when you're moving you're only ever on one foot at a time. Contrast to "being on your feet" which means standing still ready to move. By foot: Don't know why this is singular, however, it seems it's always singular with by.. ie. you travel by road, not by roads, eventhough there are more roads; or by train even when getting from A to B involves 2 trains or more. I would assume the reason is that you're naming a category. – Born2Smile yesterday

8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

"By" in this context normally refers to a mode of transportation whereas "in" or "on" would refer to your position whilst travelling.

We travel by car

This suggests we are using a car to travel.

We travel in a car

This implies we are inside of a car while traveling.

When it comes to using "on foot" or "by foot," either would be correct; however, a quick google search demonstrated that "by foot" is more commonly used (150M hits vs. 85.4M hits)

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Thanks this would really help me – aliya Mar 25 '11 at 19:06
@aliya please accept answer if this is what you needed – snumpy Mar 25 '11 at 20:11
I would bet a lot of money that the majority of instances that contain "by foot" are from English Language websites and forums instructing learners on the difference between "on foot" and "by foot". I don't know what happened since 2011, but today, July 2015, Google reports 29,700,000 results for “on foot”; and 7,340,000 results for "by foot" (with quotation marks). – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 at 13:38
Google Books on the other hand, yields 4,790 results for “by foot” and 42,700 results for “on foot”. The “on foot” wins hands down! – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 at 13:42
@Mari-LouA also, COCA gives 1743 'on foot', 286 'by foot'. Everything has its bias, and I'd be guessing of an explanation of the difference between plain old google and google books/COCA, but I'd consider the latter a 'better' representation of natural usage (because it's a curated corpus?) – Mitch Nov 20 at 13:33

Which one is correct?

Taking a snapshot-sample approach to this question, I ran a Google Books search for four phrases that incorporate "by foot" or "on foot": "travel on foot" (blue line, "travel by foot" (red line), "traveling on foot" (green line, and "traveling by foot" (yellow line). Here is the resulting Ngram chart for the years 1840–2005:

As this chart indicates, all four expressions have been in use in published writing for many years, but the "on foot" wordings are at least somewhat more common than the "by foot" alternatives. The chart also shows that the frequency of occurrence of "travel on foot" in print has declined gradually over the past 150 years, while the frequency of travel by foot" has increased slightly; the difference in frequency used to be much greater than it is today.

Historically, "travel/traveling on foot" goes back much farther than "travel/traveling by foot." The earliest match for "travel on foot" in a Google Books search is from Alexander Grosse, Sweet and Soule-Perswading Inducements Leading Unto Christ (1632):

Euery man may see in these times mens naturall lusts and affections which should like servants be kept under and suppressed, humbled, brought low, and made to walke on foot ; yet these are set on horsebacke, exalted, honoured, preferred, and Christ the Prince of peace, and all his ordinances, statutes, and testimonies, which should reigne and rule like Princes in the soule of man, these are made like servants to travell on foot ; these are of no esteeme and price With men ; these have no rule and sway in the hearts of men : ...

The earliest Google Books instance of "travelling on foot" is from only a few years later. From Samuel Purchas, A Theatre of Politicall Flying-Insects (1657):

At such times [as during a plague of locusts] the people depart from their own Country, so that wee have found all the wayes full of men and women, travelling on foot with their children in their arms, and upon their heads, going into other Countries, where they might finde food, which was a pitiful thing to behold.

In contrast, the first Google Books match for "travel by foot" is from more than 200 years after the first match for "travell on foot." From Missionary Herald (April 1836):

We met with very good and attentive congregations at nearly all the places [in the vicinity of Byamvillee, Ceylon]. We were obliged to travel by foot through roads which are impervious to every other mode of travelling.

And the earliest Google Books instance of "travelling by foot" is from "Railways in India," in The Artizan (June 1847):

The average cost of travelling is, to 1st class passengers, 8d. per mile each ; to 2nd class, 1.12d. per mile each ; and to 3rd class, 0.6d. per mile each, including food if proceeding by water, and 0.533d. per mile each, including time and food if travelling by foot.

Nevertheless, both forms have been in attested use for more than 175 years. To judge from the Google Books search results, "travel/traveling on foot" is considerably older and continues to be more common than "travel/traveling by foot"; but both are currently in use and—by any reasonable standard of appraisal—are "correct."

It occurred to me that the original preference for "on foot" might have influenced by the then-common alternative transportation mode "on horseback," given that the phrase "by horseback" sounds extremely odd. However, both terms are so old that both seem to have been in place by the time the earliest Google Books volumes were published—and as a result, there is no clear basis for supposing that adoption of one of those wordings influenced adoption of the other.

Are there instances when the expression 'by foot' is preferred?

Looking through the matches for "travel/travelling by foot," I found a few examples where "by foot" sounds better (to me) than it usually does. The 1847 example of "traveling by foot" cited above is one such instance—and the reason it sounds better than usual, I think, is that it appears in parallel with the earlier phrase "proceeding by water." An even stronger example appears in Christopher Froelich, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Russian (2004):

Russian verbs of motion sometimes cause problems for English speakers for two reasons. First, motion verbs come in pairs of definite and indefinite motion. ... Second, Russian does not have a verb that means "to go." Instead, verbs of motion in Russian indicate the method of travel—by foot, by vehicle, by plane, by boat.

And stronger still is this instance from The Code of Federal Regulations of the United States of America (1983):

(g) Winter travel. The Superintendent may, by posting or notice, establish on the basis of weather and snow conditions, a winter travel season. During this season, registration with the Superintendent is required prior to any winter travel by foot, skis, snowshoes, or sleds, away from plowed roads.

It is easy to see in these last two examples how the other travel options (all explicitly or implicitly preceded by by) influenced the author's choice of "by foot" over "on foot." This preference is, however, a highly subjective one. Even more so, I suppose, is this one—from Systems Analysis in Forest Resources: Proceedings of the 2003 Symposium (2005) [combined snippets]—where again I can understand the author's inclination to go with "travel by foot":

This methodology required intensive attribution of equipment and travel routes, and in the context of forest road engineering, it was able to ignore the problem of off-road travel by foot.

Here "off-road travel" is one idea and "by foot" follows at a slight remove; perhaps the author wanted to avoid even the faintest shadow of the misreading "ignore the problem ... on foot"; certainly no such misreading is possible with the wording "ignore the problem ... by foot."

But even in these rather unusual instances where "by foot" is arguably a good choice, it doesn't follow that using "on foot" would be an error. The same goes in reverse for the usual case where "on foot" may seem more natural and idiomatic. Ultimately the choice between "travel by foot" and "travel on foot" is a matter of personal preference—one in which more people writing (and speaking, presumably) favor the latter more of the time; but I couldn't find any special travel-related usage of "by foot" in which replacing "by foot" with "on foot" would be idiomatically dubious.

Why is the singular noun, 'foot', used?

The idiom "on foot" goes back very far in English. Marlowe includes this exchange in Doctor Faustus (1592):

Mephistopheles. What, will you go on horse-back or on foot?

Faustus. Nay, till I'm past this fair and pleasant green, I'll walk on foot.

Even earlier is this instance of "on foot" (in the sense of "in the process of occurring" or, in other words, "afoot") from a letter by Secretary William Cecil, dated October 31, 1559, reprinted in The Works of John Knox, volume 3 (1853):

On the last of that month [October 1559], Cecil writes from Court, and says, "If Balnaves shuld come, it wold prove dangerous; and therefore it is thought better that he be forborne until the matter be better on foot."

I couldn't find any explanation in a reference work of why English prefers "on foot" to "on feet." But whatever the reason may have been, the decision on the preferred form happened long ago. (Merriam-Webster reports that afoot in the sense of "on foot" dates to the thirteenth century; and as there is no plural option afeet in this case, the early appearance of afoot suggests that the singular was already in place for "on foot" as well.)

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  1. Which one is correct?

    a) I go to school by foot. b) I go to school on foot.

The original question and the additional questions are easily answered quoting the authoritative Oxford dictionaries

    1. a) OED records on foot from XIV century:

(c1325 in G. L. Brook Harley Lyrics (1968) 62 ): Þe is bettere on fote gon þen wycked hors to ryde.

  • b) Oxford Dictionary (also) records by foot as a variant of on foot:

The first time he came was in 1945 when the main means of transport was by foot or rickshaw.

Therefore both forms are correct

  1. Why is the singular noun, foot, used?

If a person goes to school by bus/train/car they are using only one means of transport, they are travelling in one car not two. But people use both feet for walking, so why would the following expressions be ungrammatical?

    1. The singular form is preferred when not the concrete part[s] of the human body is/ are considered, but the abstract meaning i.e. the organ of sense, or any other figurative sense:

      • eye : The appropriate form is used when referring to the physical organ: one would give one's left/ right eye, to turn a blind eye, up to (one's) eyes in, to shut one's eyes , to be all eye s; but:

    at first eye, in the eye of the law/ logic, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, through/ with the eye(s) of, (sight), or: to do .. in the eye, one in the eye for (humiliating blow); to give an eye to, to catch the eye (attention) to keep an/ one's eye on (watch); to see eye to eye (agree); to give .. the eye (warning glance/ sexual interest); to have an eye to* (object/ view/ regard for); to have/ get one's eye[s] in ( judge distance/ direction);

    • ear :

In sing. and pl. The action or function of perception by the ears; the sense of hearing or listening (OED)

" He sow'd a slander in the common ear","Does my ear deceive me? A shrill whistle coming over the water!", "Clocks should be in beat, not only because they sound pleasant to the ear", but because they are less likely to stop", "For later ventriloquists, the dummy would become a fixture.., funnelling the audience's attention on what they saw in front of them, and knitting together the evidence of eye and ear. to come to somebody's ear, at first ear, (to play) by hear, etc.

  • foot , on its own, can be used in the singular instead of feet

a. Viewed with regard to its function, as the organ of locomotion. In rhetorical and poetical use often (in sing. or pl.) qualified by adjs. denoting the kind of movement (as swift, slow, stealthy, etc.), or employed as the subject of verbs of motion. (OED)

(1667 Milton Paradise Lost) "Tripping ebbe, that stole With soft foot towards the deep", "I was not aware of your presence... Your foot is so light", "Dogs..swift of foot", "Useful as is Nature, to attract the tourist's foot",(a1616 Shakespeare Coriolanus) "Unless by using means I lame the foot Of our design". With reference to walking or running: to pull foot (depart), to take one's foot in one's hand (also, to make a journey). ^Mr. Foot's horse* (one's feet),to catch.. on the wrong foot (to catch unawares), to get off on the right/ wrong foot (to start un/ successfully)

  • on foot refers to a way of locomotion:

to go on foot: to walk as opposed to ‘ride.’ (OED)

and, according to Oxford dictionary

to go on/ by foot: walking rather than travelling by car or using other transport.

This explains why the singular form is used

  1. Are there instances when the expression by foot is preferred?
    1. As we have seen, the phrase originated in XIV century when one could only choose between walking and riding

on foot : a. on one's own feet, walking or running, in opposition to on horseback (OED)

therefore the preposition on was chosen to express both ways; When other means of locomotion where invented the preposition by was appropriately chosen (to go..: by bike/bus/car/train etc)

Walking rather than travelling by car or using other transport. (Oxford Dictionary)

Therefore it was natural to change the preposition ("I won't go by bike/ car/ bus ....but by foot") adding by foot to the long-established on foot. That explains why the latter is more popular and can be used in most contexts:

" I drove up..(fearful of being late, or I should have come on foot". "Motorists were forced to abandon their vehicles in the road and walk the remaining distance on foot". "In the past, hockey fans could walk on foot for miles to watch their favourite stars".

In conclusion, by foot is (to be) preferred when another modern means of transport is mentioned:

"The first time he came was in 1945 when the main means of transport was by foot or rickshaw". (quoted above: Oxford dictionary)


I added the other two questions to make it more "complete" but could you please say which is more the common between "by foot" and "on foot", which is basically why I set up the bounty in the first place. Mary-Lou A.

I thought that was obvious, MaryLou, from my post and, above all, from Siva's answer that unmistakably showed which is more common (edit: thanks to the Ngram you added).

by foot (0.00003[5] %) is over a hundred times less common then the original form (0.001-0.00031 %)1 even though not a recent coinage. Probably, it is an educated guess to imagine that it gained currency with the advent of railway, when people started traveling by train: the phrase has in fact a first (modest) peak (0.000015 %) around 1764, and at that time also by horse became more popular

I can only add, since it looks like you have no access to OED, that it is not mentioned there at all, and, what is worse, it is not listed, not even as a variant in the updated SOED version. I also said that it is used mainly when another means of transport that requires that preposition is mentioned.

1 Ngram percentages respectively in 1900 and in 1999

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+1 for going back to 1325! But I don't understand your numbers. What, exactly, is only 3x10^-5 percent? Yes, it refers to "by foot", but what does it mean? And 5x10^-4 is 16 times 3x10^-5. 10^-3 is 33 times 3x10^-5. Or have I gone cross-eyed counting all those zeros? – ab2 23 hours ago
I apologize I hadn't read your answer as thoroughly as it deserved, but the line ...“That explains why the latter is more popular and can be used in most contexts:”.... was not at all obvious as it appeared near the end. It's never a good idea to quote comments, it was my intention to delete mine whether you addressed my request or not. – Mari-Lou A 22 hours ago
And by the way who is Silva? Are you referring to @Siva Priya, that answer was posted in June this year and has been edited three times by three different users since then. Anyway, thank you so much for the high quality contribution. I'm really impressed. – Mari-Lou A 22 hours ago
+1 for the highly educated guess – frank 5 hours ago

'On Foot' is correct.

We never say by foot. This is specifically mentioned in the popular book on English grammar by Wren and Martin and it's solution's book.

Quoting the relevant rules of grammar (you can search it in the book) -

  1. Prepositions with forms of transport. (mentioned in solution's book)
  • We use by + noun when we talk about means of transport. We do not use the or a/an before the noun. Ex: We travelled by train, (not: by the/a train).
  • We do not use by when the reference is to a specific bicycle, car, train, etc. Ex: They came in a taxi.
  • We use on to mean a specific bicycle, bus, train, ship or plane, and in to mean a specific car, taxi, van, lorry or ambulance. Ex: We say on foot (not by foot).
  1. Omission of the article. (mentioned in the book)

The article is omitted in certain phrases consisting of a preposition followed by its object; as,

  • at home, in hand, in debt, by day, by night, at daybreak, at sunrise, at noon, at sunset, at night, at anchor, at sight, on demand, at interest, on earth, by land, by water, by river, by train, by steamer, by name, on horseback, on foot, on deck, in jest, at dinner, at ease, under ground, above ground.

However, I very frequently refer the dictionary of my MacBook. And when I searched for this phrase, it says that both 'on foot' and 'by foot' are fine. (Whoever has access to the dictionary in Apple's devices can verify.) So even though 'by foot' is not grammatically correct and while it conveys the idea, if you are aiming for perfection, you should say 'on foot'.

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Your Wren and Martin link says that the article is omitted, i.e. you can use on foot but you can't use on a foot or on the foot. That says nothing about whether you can use by foot. – AndyT yesterday
@AndyT: My point is to show the correct usage. Also I'm saying what you are saying: Nothing's said about by foot. If it was the correct usage, it'd have been mentioned as well. Further, there is a key book for the exercises of Wren and Martin and that specifically mentions that we never use by foot but from the days that key was published, 'by foot' has actually become slightly popular and added to dictionaries (like Apple's dictionary, as I mentioned). If I find the link to the key, I'll add here. – displayName yesterday
@AndyT: Here is one link to the book's solutions. Go to its page 136, or search for "not by foot" in the pdf and you will find the place where the book tells that we don't say "by foot" and say "on foot" only. – displayName yesterday
Then edit that extract into your answer, because the extract you currently have in your answer, which you say is the relevant rule of grammar, doesn't say what you say it does! – AndyT yesterday

It seems that some people use "by foot" in analogy to "by car" (by + vehicle) without knowing that the correct expression is "on foot".

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Yes, this is a typical learner's mistake. But how does your post answer the question/s though? You can do better than this. We're looking for a canonical answer, not comments. – Mari-Lou A yesterday
@Mari-LouA - Nothing to do with a "typical learner" - as a native speaker I'd happily use either "on foot" or "by foot". – AndyT yesterday

I don't feel that "by foot" is the more commonly used. "On foot" is more common.

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The Ngram link was added by Tonepoet, the grammar was fixed by deadrat, and I've now added the Ngram chart. If this could be made into a community-wiki answer that would be so much better. – Mari-Lou A yesterday
@Mari-LouA: Much better! – Chenmunka yesterday

In this case, they are both correct. On foot is saying that you get to school on feet, but saying by foot is saying that you get to school by walking.

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On foot is the usual way to say it.

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However, by is usually used with regards to a means of travel. For example, you would say "I went to school by car". – Yozomiri Mar 25 '11 at 18:55
but why is by foot commonly used? – aliya Mar 25 '11 at 19:07
@aliya: Because you are literally travelling on your feet. The same thing is used for saying, "I traveled on horseback" but not for "I traveled on car." – MrHen Mar 25 '11 at 19:11
This needs pointing out. Since November 20th of this year (2015) this answer has been upvoted eight times (and counting). It was stuck at +2 for over four years. Why didn't anyone upvote it four and half years ago? Because it is a very poor answer; there is no detail, no support, no evidence, no explanation. If users want to continue upvoting this post, I can't dissuade them, but I will not be awarding the bounty to this answer. – Mari-Lou A 10 hours ago

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