6

For the following sentences:

  • He threw the book at the floor.
  • He threw the book on the floor.

I know the book hit the floor in both sentences but which one is more commonly used and also what's the difference between 'at' and 'on'? Do we acknowledge the exact position from 'at'?

4
  • I would prefer the latter ("on the floor") because "on" might mean "ASSUMING A POSITION ON THE SURFACE". As this NGRAM shows the former ("at the floor") is a rare form: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user19148
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 19:58
  • 2
    Actually, if he threw the book at the floor we don't know that it actually reached the floor. Maybe his dog caught the book in mid-air or something...
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 20:12
  • 1
    A case could be made that it would make more sense to say "at the floor": you throw "at" a target, not "on" a target. But that's just not what people say: we "throw things ON the floor", whether that makes sense or not.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 20:37
  • ...everybody walk the dinosaur. Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 20:50

3 Answers 3

6

We typically use at when talking about an upright target:

He threw the book at the dog.
The judge threw the book at her.
I threw my food at the wall.

If the target is flat, we typically say on instead:

I spilled it on the floor.
I dropped my things on the table after school.

2

I believe the word "on" also implies a final resting place. If you throw your book on the floor, and don't implicitly tell us where it ended up, we will immediately assume it's still on the floor. Similarly, if I "throw my clothes at the floor" on my way to the shower, it implies that I really don't care where they landed; they may have ended up on the back of a chair or on the dog laying in the corner. The emphasis is on that shower.

1

"Throw something on the floor" is usually used in more of an expressive than literal context. Usually, when you "throw something on the floor", you're not actually throwing it, you're dropping it casually, or maybe tossing it. Sometimes we might also use the expression to indicate we did something quickly: I threw on some clothes, throw dinner on the stove, etc. This does not mean that "throw on the floor" is never used literally ("during his tantrum, he threw all his food on the floor"). However, throwing at is generally used in a more literal sense, and usually indicates deliberateness and/or force.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.