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Sounds wrong to me, and I would say, "I turned the computer off, and then on again", but I was wondering if both forms are acceptable.

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Weird. It sound "wrong" to me too, but I see no need to introduce additional words into the resequenced version to make it "natural". To me, there's nothing at all even "odd" about "I turned the computer on and off". But I have no idea why I think you can't turn on and off a computer, whereas you can step on and off the scales (or walk up and down the road, etc., etc.). – FumbleFingers Jun 28 '14 at 12:11
add an 'again' and it will sound pretty good: "I turned the computer on and off again." – user3306356 Jun 28 '14 at 12:34
up vote 10 down vote accepted

FumbleFingers' comment points to what's going on here:

... you can't turn on and off a computer, whereas you can step on and off the scales (or walk up and down the road, etc., etc.)

In step on and off the scales both on and off act as prepositions, taking scales as their respective objects, and conjoining the two prepositions implies an ellipsis of two conjoined preposition phrases: on the scales and off the scales. This is consonant with how we express the result of each action:

I step on the scales. > I am now on the scales.
I step off the scales. > I am now off the scales.

But in turned on (or off) the computer*, on (or off) does not act as a preposition but as an adjective designating a state which you cause the computer to assume. Note that with turn, unlike with step, on (or off) can be posed after the object:

I turned on the computer = I turned the computer on > The computer is now on.

The preposition phrases implicit in the conjunct preposed prepositions are not valid. Consequently we must postpose the conjunction:

I turned the computer on and off.

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Brilliant. Thank you! – Jonathan Zhan Jun 28 '14 at 13:36
Now why didn't I think of that? Another example of the "multiple adjectival words" construction would be "I turned the volume up and down", where you can't say "I turned up and down the volume" (but you can say "I looked up and down the street", and at a pinch you can say "I looked her up and down"). – FumbleFingers Jun 28 '14 at 14:12
@FumbleFingers And to draw the line even more sharply: I turned it on and off its head works just fine. – StoneyB Jun 28 '14 at 17:39

I think you're mixing two questions. Turning the computer off and on is something you can only do when it is on to start with. I flicked the light switch on and off (to test the power, because it started in the 'off' position) is a perfectly normal phrase, but does not denote the same process as turning the light off and on (to give the starter a better chance), though that is equally normal.

And whether you insert again in the phrase is largely a matter of choice. It may be that 'flicking the switch on and off' is a single action ending in the off position, where 'flicking it on and off' is more aimless; but equally that may be more precise than most people's language actually is.

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