4

I personally would say "to sit at the computer", but a friend of mine said he heard "to sit on the computer" from a native speaker. That does not sound right to me at all, and I trust my guts, but still, Google results for "sit on the computer" are quite numerous (even more numerous than "sit at the computer"), and I wonder if on sounds right to native speakers out there.

Thanks for your input!

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    Sitting on a computer would be rather uncomfortable and might make it difficult to use. Nice and warm, though! – Andrew Leach Oct 14 '13 at 16:03
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    ... ie the basic locational sense of 'on' would quite possibly be initially inferred by many hearers with this expression. However, the use of the phrase "sitting on his computer" does seem extensive. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 14 '13 at 16:04
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    Yeah, I mean it's OK to say "to be on the computer", I guess, but "to sit" sounds totally wrong to me. – Vilmar Oct 14 '13 at 16:06
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    cf 'He's at the phone' / 'He's on the phone' / 'He's sitting at the phone' / ?!'He's sitting on the phone'. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 14 '13 at 16:15
13

One can be "on a computer", which means one is using it. In order to do that, one sits at it.

To sit on a computer does actually imply sitting on it.

OED:

on, prep.
3. Indicating the instrument or medium of an action or process.

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    +1 As an native American English speaker, this answer matches my typical usage perfectly. – Lumberjack Oct 14 '13 at 18:08
1

I've got many British friends, and they frequently use this construction. That's not to say that it's exclusively British, but I cannot recall having ever heard it before then; however, if you parallel "to be on the computer" to "to be on Skype" or "to be on Facebook," it makes perfect sense.

I have actually caught myself using it a few times. In my opinion, it's all relative in the computer world.

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    Are you saying you've heard British people say "be on the computer" or "sit on the computer"? As A Brit, I would say that "be on the computer" is fine - but I've never heard "sit on the computer". – TrevorD Oct 14 '13 at 16:16
  • It's more confusing than that even. Sometimes I will say something is "sitting on the computer". I could mean literally, like I left a piece of paper on the top of the computer, or that a soft copy of the file is on the computer's disk. – name Oct 14 '13 at 16:22
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    @better_use_mkstemp Agreed. There's nothing wrong with talking of something sitting on the computer - but OP's question implies someone, since he compares it with "sitting at". – TrevorD Oct 14 '13 at 16:28
  • I have heard native speakers (I can think of two recently, both American) say ‘sit on the computer’. In the context, it was in both cases clear that the meaning differs slightly from ‘sitting at the computer’. You sit at the computer if you’re just randomly browsing the Internet or wading through Tumblrs with pictures of lolcats; but sitting on the computer implies doing actual, proper work on it. If memory serves, the latter of the two said, as verbatim as I can, “My brain is so fritzed right now, I’ve just been sitting here on the computer all day with these stupid tables”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 14 '13 at 16:56
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    @JanusBahsJacquet, "sitting here on the computer" is an elision of "sitting here, working on the computer". I don't agree that "sitting on" and "sitting here on" are saying the same thing. As a native American speaker, "sitting on" means literally sitting on top of the computer. – Kristina Lopez Oct 14 '13 at 17:36
0

At least it wasn't "sat on the computer" implying that one had been placed there by another person rather than it having been a unilateral act.

0

Looking at the BYU British corpus of written English and also an American English corpus, I found basically 0 instances of "sit/sitting/sits on a computer".

From the feedback I've found here and my own intuitions as a native English speaker, plus my experience teaching ESL, I feel as though "sit on a computer" is safely wrong. It might be akin to "make a photo" another case of absolutely incorrect English that's made like an invasive species among non-native speakers' English.

Much better alternatives are:

1) I've been sitting at the computer all day.

2) If you keep sitting in front of the computer, you'll hurt your eyes.

Also, a previous commenter wrongly suggested that it's like chatting "on Facebook". It's not. We often use "on" to indicate communication through a certain medium, like talking "on skype, on the phone" and "meeting on Tinder". It's different. It's not the same as just being on a computer, when you're just using it.

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