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I am a non-native English speaker. Since school, I was taught "on the earth" is equal to "in the world", and "on earth"'s meaning should be "indeed". But nowadays, I find "on earth" has replaced "on the earth" in many articles. So I want to make sure is it right to use "on earth" to replace "on the earth"?

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    Nothing on earth would persuade me to endorse a definite article in this sentence. Well, maybe I'd accept the definite article, but definitely not nothing on the earth. I don't think usage here has changed in my lifetime, so I think OP has just gotten confused about something. – FumbleFingers Mar 31 '15 at 1:15
  • Ngrams shows little signs of change. – Peter Shor Mar 31 '15 at 1:28
  • I would say that "on earth" has been the norm for as long as I can remember (which takes us back to the Eisenhower administration). – Hot Licks Mar 31 '15 at 2:18
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    You are correct that "what on earth" (as in "What on earth are you doing?") is a set phrase/idiom meaning (very roughly) "what indeed". But that does not mean that "on earth" means "indeed", since it's the entire phrase that is idiomatic. – Hot Licks Mar 31 '15 at 3:39
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The word earth is commonly used to mean two things 1) soil, dirt, the substance that keep the trees upright and help you to grow beans and tomatoes, the material of the world; the ground, the world 2) the second meaning of earth is the planet Earth; a member of the Solar system of the planets; the third orb from the Sun. (that is called Astronomical sense)

When it is used in astronomical sense (2) it takes the definite article the and it is capitalized at the same time.

What on earth you are talking about? Means what you say is astonishing, or clarify your meaning, it is not easily understandable. Down to earth means humble, and approachable. come down to earth means be real, stop being high and mighty etc.

on the earth DOES NOT MEAN equal to;

on earth DOES NOT MEAN indeed

Not in American speech anyway.

  • The OP said he was taught that "on the earth" is equal to "in the world". – Hot Licks Mar 31 '15 at 3:41
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    I'd say that the definite article is usually optional when using the astronomical sense. You can just as well say Earth is the third planet. and Earth will be engulfed in the expanding radius of the Sun – Barmar Mar 31 '15 at 6:09
  • I agree with @Barmar and I'd suggest that it's because we've gradually shifted our perception. We used to live on the earth, but now we understand that we live on one of many planets, so we're inclined to drop 'the' and capitalize 'Earth' to align it with Mercury, Venus, etc. – David Garner Apr 1 '15 at 6:31
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There is really no reason to use the here. I mean on the Earth is not correct since planets do not pair with definite articles, unless we say something like The red planet. I say just go with on Earth.

  • Some do, and one of them is the Earth. – Abe Mar 31 '15 at 3:37
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    The Moon, the Sun, the Red Planet as you rightly said. But you are mostly correct we do not say the Jupiter, the Uranus, or the Venus. The Earth is used for strictly astronomical sense. Look at this sentence: • In about five billion years, scientists estimate, the Earth will be engulfed and burned up in the expanding radius of the Sun as it evolves. C. Claiborne Ray, Death of a Star, New York Times, 23 Jan. 2012 Web – Abe Mar 31 '15 at 3:42
  • If you go outside and lie down on the lawn in your garden, you are definitely lying on the earth, not *on earth. You're only lying on earth if there's no grass or concrete or anything else between, if you're lying directly on actual brown soil. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 31 '15 at 9:38
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Following usage manuals are gold standard, recognized and highly regarded and used in the USA.

New Oxford Style Manual :NOSM

Fowlers Modern English Usage (Burchfield Editor): FMEU.Bu.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: M-W.DoEU

Garners Modern American Usage: GMAU Published by Oxford by Brian Garner and

NYT Manual of Style and Usage: NYT-SM, Editor dos NYT

Earth: NOSM: Capitalize only in astronomical contexts, and in a list of planets.

FMEU.Bu.: Frequently with the initial capital when considered as a planet of the solar system; in such contexts like Mars, Venus it is normally used without the definite article (but the Planet Earth)

GMAU : in reference to planet we live on, earth is usually preceded by the and is not capitalized. But when Earth is referred to as a proper noun it is capitalized and it stands alone!

In reference to the stuff that the planet is made of Roy Copperud states lower case earth without the means soil.

The excavation is left large pile of earth. The American Usage and Style: The Consensus p.117 1980

NYT-SM: Lowercase except in the specialized context of astronomy. Particulary in juxtaposition with other bodies:

How do Mars and Earth fit in that pattern.

So the summary is even the GURUs do not agree 100 % !

Except capitalize when you mean the Planet Earth: everyone seems to agree on that one.

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