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As in, do we say "A survey on xyz systems" or "A survey of xyz systems"?

My initial thoughts were to use " A survey on..." because I thought "A survey of..." would refer to survey conducted by XYZ; but I ended up reminding myself that in such a case, it might be "A survey by..."

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You could finesse the whole question with 'XYZ systems: A survey'. – Peter Shor Jun 8 '11 at 17:39
up vote 8 down vote accepted

"A survey on xyz systems" implies that the topic of the survey is xyz systems, but the actual survey subjects (i.e. the people/entities who are surveyed) are not xyz systems.

"A survey of xyz systems" implies that the systems themselves are surveyed, i.e. they are both the topic and subject of the survey.

To express that xyz systems conducted the survey, I'd use "by". I don't think "of" would imply this at all.

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But if I said "We conducted a survey on hand-held recoding devices", does it necessarily follow that the survey was about those devices? I think it might just mean the responses (to a survey on food preferences, for example) were recorded on the hand-helds. – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '11 at 16:51
@FumbleFingers: Yes, but then you're using on in a different sense, just as in let's conduct the survey on the train. – Cerberus Jun 8 '11 at 17:32
I think this describes the distinction nicely. And to avoid ambiguity, you really ought to say "We conducted a survey using handheld devices" if that's what you mean instead. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 8 '11 at 17:57
@FumbleFingers: I had to read that three times to come up with your intended meaning. If you used the definite article, it would remove the ambiguity: "We conducted the survey on hand-held recording devices" is clearly not a survey about hand-held devices. (Well, ok, so now my brain is coming up with contexts where it could still be ambiguous: "Their survey was the one about desktops; we conducted the survey on hand-held devices.") – Marthaª Jun 8 '11 at 17:59
Sorry if I accidentally added even more ambiguity than I intended! But the whole point of my comment was to flag up that there is potential for ambiguity that's not automatically removed by careful use/interpretation of on/of, so I forgive myself! :-) – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '11 at 21:21

Standard usage is A survey of...


...though I quite like @Peter Shor's suggestion XYZ Systems: A survey, which to my mind simply oozes precision with no wasted words.

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I don't think NGrams is appropriate here. There is a difference in usage because there is a difference in meaning. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 8 '11 at 17:58
@Kit: OP hasn't provided any context to justify hair-splitting over possible differences in meaning. So why shouldn't I take it at face value, assume his required meaning is the overwhelmingly more common one, and show that in graphic form? Aren't we normally supposed to answer the specific question, rather than use it as a springboard to address related issues just because we think they're more interesting? – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '11 at 21:28
He's not asking for which is more common. He's asking which one is correct. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 8 '11 at 21:34
@Kit: Let's assume there aren't lots of XYZ Systems who could feasibly be respondents to OP's survey. Surely it's then ok to substitute cars for XYZ Systems, just so we can check actual usage for something which occurs often enough to NGram. It turns out survey of cars is commonplace, but survey on cars simply doesn't occur. It's true the question title mentions 'correctness', but the question itself asks what we actually say. I've addressed the issue of actual usage, not pedantic accuracy. – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '11 at 22:01

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