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Why does English use the preposition on when giving a score as in Joe is on 10 points rather than Joe has 10 points?

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  • 'BrE' uses these interchangeably. 'On' utilises the surface metaphor; compare 'the thermostat is set on high'; 'he is on a hat-trick'. A vertical linear scale is probably invoked. Jul 3, 2018 at 23:35

2 Answers 2

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Modern scoreboards in sports, TV shows and so on show a number for each contestant that is actually changed, either electronically or mechanically, when the score changes. But this was not always the case. When I played billiards and snooker in the 1970s (and it still sometimes the case) there was a printed set of numbers and a pointer for each player. So my pointer would be literally on a certain number and it came naturally to say that I was on that score. Cribbage has its own distinctive scoreboard in this form and in tennis, the score was originally kept on a clock (hence the fifteen-thirty-fort(five)-game) and your hand would be literally on one of these marks. I have even seen this system in use on old recordings of TV gameshows. Overall the use of such scoreboards was widespread and so the idea that your marker (and, by extension, you) was on a particular score was quite natural.

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The phrase "is on" is derivative of being at a certain milestone and further progression is anticipated. Like a giant board game, you're on the space you currently occupy, intending to move further ahead.

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  • I understand "Joe is on 10 points" to mean "Joe is leading [his opponent] by 10 points", or "Joe is 10 points ahead [of his opponent]".
    – tautophile
    Aug 3, 2018 at 14:23
  • I can't say I've ever see it mean that. I can see how it could be used that way, where the term "on" is often used to mean "ahead" (like Britain), but that's not common in the US, where I'm from.
    – DerpDevil
    Sep 1, 2018 at 23:59
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    I'm from the UK and I've never heard this phrase to mean "10 points ahead". Sep 2, 2018 at 23:22
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    @DerpDevil I agree, we'd say "Joe is 10 points ahead", "Joe is 10 points in front" or, more formally, ”Joe is leading by 10 points”. The 'on' construction would be used in the form of "Joe is on 15 points, Bill is on 5" or "Joe is on 10 points, Bill is yet to score"
    – BoldBen
    Sep 3, 2018 at 5:49
  • @David I didn't mean Brits use it in the manner it's used here, but I've heard Brits use "on" to mean something in the future, like, "three days on".
    – DerpDevil
    Sep 9, 2018 at 23:23

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