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I've just heard

your sister is waiting on you

with the meaning of wait for (as in wait for the bus).

Up to now I had only encountered wait on with the meaning of attend to / serve.

  1. Is this use of wait on instead of wait for widely spread in the English speaking world or more specific to certain geographical areas?

  2. In the sentence I'm quoting above, and without further context, could there be any ambiguity as to the meaning?

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To be pedantic, it could also mean that you and your sister were both waiting, and she was doing it while sitting on your shoulders. – Fraser Orr Oct 7 '11 at 21:20

14 Answers 14

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It's regional in U.S. English. Much of the U.S. says "waiting for you", but I believe that much of the South says "waiting on you". I don't know exactly what regions use "wait on" (not the Northeast), and a couple of minutes of Googling didn't find any answers, so I can't be more specific.

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You are correct, despite lack of Googling evidence. "Wait on" is common and well-understood in the south-eastern United States, specifically Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and maybe others in that region. The meaning and usage of "waiting for you" and "wait on you" is identical. "Waiting for" is standard usage in the Northeastern U.S., and many other states too. – Ellie Kesselman Oct 7 '11 at 11:50
You won't hear it in English (i.e. England). – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 22 '13 at 0:01
@Lightness: ... except maybe if you're listening to the Rolling Stones. – Peter Shor Jan 22 '13 at 2:31
@PeterShor: And then all bets are off, frankly :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 22 '13 at 2:45

"Wait on" as a synonym for "wait for" is something I've heard much more in US English than British English, but it is used in that sense. They're pretty much synonymous. And yes, you're right that the sentence "your sister is waiting on you" is ambiguous, and so it's probably best to avoid using the colloquial "wait on" for this meaning.

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Wait on has numerous meanings. In the OP’s example, it means, in the words of the OED’s definition, ‘remain in one place in expectation of’, in other words, wait for. The OED’s citations supporting this sense range from 1694 to 1984. The OED gives no indication of regional bias, but I wouldn’t say the use was ‘widely spread’. As for ambiguity, most of the time context removes it, and I would say it would generally do so in this case.

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I suggest that in the Queen's English, to wait on suggests to serve, not to wait for. Don't overlook the fact that English is the language of England, not that of the US.

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And yet if I were to stop random people on the street and ask them what the language of America was, I'd expect "English" to be a pretty common answer. – user867 Oct 8 '13 at 3:10
Oh, please, aedia λ. Sure, English began in England, but it is now spoken in many other places, the U.S. being one of them. As for the subject under discussion, "wait on" used in the sense of "wait for" is distinctly not mainstream U.S. English. – Daniel Asimov Feb 24 '14 at 12:15

I think to a considerable extent the choice of preposition is regional, stylistic, or simply arbitrary, as other answers indicate. But in the UK at least, whereas I'm waiting for John is much more common than ...on John, there's a difference in how we add more detail...

I'm waiting on John [doing something]

I'm waiting for John [to do something]

...so it's always I'm waiting on John arriving or I'm waiting for John to arrive, never the reverse.

If it's obvious what we're actually waiting for John to do, we often omit it - particularly if we're just waiting for him to arrive. But as mentioned elsewhere, even Brits are likely to use on, not for in respect of computer code waiting on a status flag (changing in value, which we invariably omit).

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I love and lament the opinions of certain contributors to this board that English from England is more pure (and therefore more correct) than the English from colonials. Anyone who has done research into how language changes in the mother country vs. her colonies knows that precisely the opposite is true - that linguistic change in colonies tends to proceed slower than in the mother country.

Regarding "wait for" versus "wait on" and the assertion by @Lightness-Races-in-Orbit that no one in England would use "wait on" except Mick Jagger, I would point out William Shakespeare (a famous Englishman) used it all the time.

In fact, searching for these terms in the online Shakespeare concordance http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org, which shows you where and how many times the Bard used a certain word, reveals that although the great man used "wait for" four times (and "await for" once), he used "wait on" 16 times and "wait upon" 22 times. This is a whopping victory for the pedigree of "wait on" made even more whopping if "wait upon" is included.

I also draw readers' attention to German "warten auf", which means "to wait on / for" something and the fact that "auf" is cognate with English "on". That German and English were the same language many hundreds of years ago is also evidence that "wait on" is the older form, and that "wait for" is the upstart.

In conclusion "wait on" has just as much of a claim to "correctness" as "wait for". Use whichever you want, and know that if you use "wait on" then you are using the language of Shakespeare. Of course you should also know that nowadays "wait for" is more common and more formal. If that is important to you, then go with the upstart.

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guest speaker, how long ago was Shakespeare? Hardly modern and up to date. – Tristan Oct 2 '13 at 16:39
Many of Shakespeare's "wait on" and "wait upon" are in the "serve / attend so" sense. This question is about the usage of "wait on" in the other sense, so you need to look at more than just a string search. – ShreevatsaR Jun 11 at 17:11

I am from Texas and I would say that "wait on" is used more commonly than "wait for" in this region at least. I have also lived in other parts of the south and California and I have never experienced anyone not understanding what was meant when I said "wait on".

I would argue that context, like in numerous languages is important and relevant.

There are plenty of phrases and idioms in the English language that don't translate literally so it seems that, at times, focus should be placed on accepted use and not pedagogy.

Also, with respect to @guestspeaker's comments above about Shakespeare and @Tristan's response, it is clear that @guestspeaker was making a point about how American English is arguably more "pure" than British English despite what others have argued. So, the fact that Shakespeare is "hardly up-to-date" is actually exactly the point @guestspeaker was making.

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More "pure", or just unnecessary considering that wait for is used and understood widely? – Tristan Oct 4 '13 at 15:04

Google Ngrams ("wait on, wait for") shows the two phrases comparable up to 1700, and since then "wait on" getting progressively less common and "wait for" more so. It doesn't appear to show any significant difference in British and American usage since 1800.

This search does not exclude the other sense of "wait on", so the 10:1 prevalence of "wait for" it shows for 2000 is clearly significantly lower than the ratio of uses with the meaning you are interested in.

"Waiting on" is not a phrase I would ever use in this sense. I think that without context the sentence is indeed ambiguous.

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Interestingly, one of the early hits for “wait on” in Google's English corpus is a dictionary which suggests that “wait on” specifically means serve; I'm not sure about the significance of attendre being listed as a possible translation in French. – Gilles Oct 7 '11 at 21:27
@ Gilles: indeed the first meaning (XI century) of the French attendre was: look after, tend to (from latin attendere). This meaning has been lost in modern French though, but has survived in the English attend on/upon which, I think, is still used as meaning wait on/serve. – Laure Oct 8 '11 at 9:48
@Laure: Do you really mean attend on? I would use attend to. At any rate. There's clearly a significant semantic relationship between the two senses, that *attendre*=wait (for) but *attendere*=wait (on)/serve. Fascinating. I would assume the relationship is that someone who serves you spends a lot of time waiting to see what you need. But we don't really have dedicated servants waiting in the other room for us anymore, do we? – ThePopMachine Jan 19 '12 at 17:55
@ThePopMachine: one attends to something but attends on someone, and yes it connotes servants or courtiers. "Attend on" can also mean "visit" -- but probably not since Jane Austen's time. If you attend to someone, it generally means that you're doing something to them. Dealing with bedpans comes to mind, for some reason. – Andrew Leach Apr 7 '12 at 9:46

Both are acceptable. A waitress waiting on a customer in a restaurant means exactly the same thing as a mother waiting on a child's response to a question. The inference is standing ready in a state of suspension pending some future activity. The server stands ready awaiting instructions from the table.

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Subjective. For example, I don't find "waiting on" to be acceptable. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 22 '13 at 0:01

I have lived in Texas longer (22 years) than I've lived anywhere else (IA, IL, NH, CA...) and Texas is the only place I've noticed people say "waitin' on" when they mean "waiting for." In fact, I searched for these two phrases today because yesterday at Walmart after I'd swiped my card at the register, the terminal said, "Waiting on cashier..." I thought it was funny that this regionalism had made it into a display terminal. Does the argument that "everyone says that these days" mean that it's OK to say "10 items or less," too? Nope, still wrong.

I would be interested to know from our northern contributors if they see the same message at their Walmart when they swipe their card.

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It's commonly used in Computer Science; you wait on a mutex (A "mutex" is an object that regulates Mutual Exclusion)

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I thought this usage is justified because there is a place in the code where you wait for the semaphore (or monitor, or whatever) – Dr. belisarius Oct 7 '11 at 14:37
@belisarius: Interesting angle. Your program can wait on a line of code. I think that this usage is more to do with computing inheriting Americanisms including the more general "wait on", though. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 22 '13 at 0:02

According to bab.la, "to wait for" is a lot more common than "to wait on". (43% vs. 3%.)

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IMO this exemplifies the erosion of semantic precision as a result of sloppy common usage.

When I was a lad, we were taught that wait on is to be used only when to serve is meant; it was never correct to use wait on as a substitute for wait for. I notice, however, that this distinction is disappearing in American usage, particularly in the west. But I see it in both written and spoken usage in all regions. As some have stated here, though, wait on is rarely used for wait for in British or other non-US usage.

The Computer Science use of wait on is sloppy. You are in fact waiting FOR the mutex to become free; you are in no sense serving the mutex. I, for one, only use wait on when I mean to serve.

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Use "wait for" and you will be correct much more often. The only reason I can think of to use "wait on" is if you're telling someone where to wait, such as "on" a railway platform, or "on" a particular street corner. "Wait for Ted on the corner of sixth and main." You wait "for" the event, while positioned "on" a location.

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Considering other answers here, the only reason I can think of for using "wait on" is if speaking American English. – Tristan Sep 8 '13 at 18:17

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