I was reading to my daughter the other night and came across an awkward passage in Crockett Johnson's "Harold's Trip to the Sky":

"There was nothing to see. He was in the middle of a desert. No wonder he was so thirsty. But, luckily, he had brought his purple crayon. And he knew where to find water on a desert."

In my experience, common usage finds one "in a desert" rather than "on" one. Honestly, this is my first time encountering this particular usage anywhere.

Is it more common to say (verbally or in writing) that one is "in a desert" or "on a desert"? Has common usage of this phrase shifted since the book's original copyright date in 1957 or are there other reasons for this difference in usage? I have already seen other questions similar to this one such as "On a page" or "in a page" for a web page and I understand that prepositions are used interchangeably in some situations. My question is not about correct usage but common usage. Any examples from other written works would be appreciated.

  • I have this U.S. perspective to contribute: I was editing a book in which a character pulled her car "ONto to the driveway" and later "ONto the parking lot." I changed it to INto. But the author argued that they say "into" in Pennnsylvania(I'm in Illinois). She claims that the driveway is the pavement, so of course you are on/above it. I think the driveway is the international airspace above the pavement, so you are IN it.
    – michelle
    Apr 12 '17 at 21:46
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    Doesn't the 'purple crayon' reference strongly imply that this may be an 'on the map' usage? Even realistic fiction can use heavy metaphor; with fantasy stories, it's hard to decide where metaphors end. Apr 12 '17 at 21:55
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    Are you actually asking about common usage or this particular use? As Edwin implied, there may be many reasons why the author chose this word, and common usage will not help with most of them. Apr 12 '17 at 22:12
  • From a British perspective: you could be on the hills or in the hills... using that logic finding water on a desert works perfectly well although, as noted in the question, it's less usual. Additionaly, in the quoted case one might expect Harold to find the water literally on the surface of the desert.
    – Mike C
    Apr 12 '17 at 22:38
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    There is always the possibility that it is a simple typo. “He knew where to find water on a desert” sounds utterly and unsalvageably wrong to me in the context given here. Dropping a bomb on a desert sounds fine (I mean, no, it sounds horrible, don’t drop bombs anywhere—but it’s grammatico-semantically fine), and if the context were something like a huge atlas lying on the table and someone turning around to find that they’d spilt water on the desert (in the atlas), that would work too. But here it sounds like the guy is actually in the desert, and that completely shoots it down. Apr 12 '17 at 23:18

Google NGRAMS shows "in the desert" to be much more common than "on the desert".

Some uses of "on the desert" have a preceding word, e.g., "bordering on the desert". But it's basically 200/1.

For "in a desert" vs. "on a desert," it's about 2/1.

"in a desert" is even more dominant when "on a desert island" is considered, since the phrase dominates the "on a desert" references.

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    "on a desert" counts will include "on a desert island" and similar formations
    – Henry
    Apr 12 '17 at 22:47
  • @Henry Good point, I'll check that out.
    – Xanne
    Apr 12 '17 at 22:56

I believe the answer is not so much a technical one but a literary one.

When the author writes, "He was in the middle of a desert", he is placing the character in a setting, and indicating it was a harsh environment and so on.

Next, the author writes, "And he knew where to find water on a desert." The author is not only avoiding re-using "in a desert", but the author is also drawing the reader's attention to the surface of the desert, from which presumably you'd dig a hole to find water, or trace surface features to an oasis, etc.

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