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.


  • A bit unclear about what is actually being asked. Are you asking what types of writings have these types of titlings? – ws04 Jan 25 '16 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 '16 at 4:14
  • 1
    Maybe transliteration from Latin, or Latin syntax, given the history of Latin as the language used previously by European scholars. – curious-proofreader Jan 25 '16 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 '16 at 4:31

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.


I don't really know if there are any strict rules governing the use of "On" in titles. As GoDucks said, I think it can largely be regarded as a custom or tradition that isn't as popular as it once was.

The best example that I can think of is Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which is a scientific work, rather than a philosophical treatise.

As far as I know, the word "On" isn't commonly used in scientific works any more, but I think the word commonly appears in popular titles. It would be helpful if I could think of some examples, but I'm kind of stumped at the moment, other than On Golden Pond - however, I think "On" has a different connotation in that particular title.

Here are a couple relatively modern titles: On the Meaning of Life, On the Meaning of Sex.

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