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Sometimes I see texts (essays?) with titles like so: "On ......"

For example: "On the transience of human life"

I'd like to find more informations on this kind of titling. They seem to be more used for philosophical texts or essays. Are there some rules about this kind of titles? Are they reserved for certain kind of texts? I couldn't find much on this subject.

Thanks!

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  • A bit unclear about what is actually being asked. Are you asking what types of writings have these types of titlings?
    – ws04
    Jan 25, 2016 at 4:12
  • Yes. What types of writing have these types of titlings, and general usage rules. I don't even know if that form of titling has a particular name. Also, English is not my first language.
    – Phil
    Jan 25, 2016 at 4:14
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    Maybe transliteration from Latin, or Latin syntax, given the history of Latin as the language used previously by European scholars. Jan 25, 2016 at 4:16
  • It seems to be an older usage (19th century and prior?), perhaps having to do with philosophy or science, although William Zinzer's masterful On Writing Well seems a contemporary example that probably echoes such an usage.
    – GoDucks
    Jan 25, 2016 at 4:31

1 Answer 1

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Compare the following:

On the transience of life vs The transience of life; or
On writing well vs Writing well.

Scholarly writing tends to favour precision, especially not claiming more than is warranted. If a publication touches on a subject but is not comprehensive, the author may be considered arrogant for claiming a comprehensive title such as the examples above that don't start with On.

Using On for the titles of works dealing with broad subjects can simply be considered academic humility. It's not necessarily archaic, or restricted to philosophy. Here are a couple of fairly recent publications found via google scholar:

On the mechanics of economic development; and
On the approximate realization of continuous mappings by neural networks.

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