1

Consider the definitions of against in Merriam-Webster:

She was resting her head against the side of the chair.

I accidentally knocked my head against the shelf.

She accidentally brushed against him as she walked by.

Profits are up this year against last year.

Can I use on instead in these examples and make no difference in meaning?

2

Against and on are commonly used interchangeably. I'll talk you through each one to make sure you understand the difference, in general against is used to mean on the side of rather than from any direction.

She was resting her head against the side of the chair.
I accidentally knocked my head against the shelf.

On and against are both fine here.

She accidentally brushed against him as she walked by.

In this context, if you replace with "on" it doesn't make sense. Brushed against someone is the act of physically touching them as you walk past, if you replace with "on" it almost means to be on top of them in some way.

Profits are up this year against last year.

This sentence doesn't really make sense. Should be "Profits are up this year since last year" or even better "Profits are up compared to last year". The reason is that in this context against is usually used in a competing sense like: "England are playing football against Spain this weekend". Profits can't compete with each other.

  • The dictionary lists the last example as legit. What do you make of that? @Tristan – Kinzle B Dec 6 '14 at 14:44
1

Looking at the definition for "on" in Collins:

  • She was resting her head on the side of the chair. yes - sense 1
  • I accidentally knocked my head on the shelf. yes - sense 1
  • She accidentally brushed on him as she walked by. see below
  • Profits are up this year on last year. yes - sense 14

Although it's technically allowed, it isn't idiomatic, at least not to me (Australian English: Sydney). It fits with sense 21, but it's at least questionable. I would recommend that you avoid using on in that particular frame, since most instances of on immediately following a verb are idiomatic.

  • I would think in #2 "on" implies hitting on the rim of the shelf while "against" implies hitting on the surface underneath, right? – Kinzle B May 11 '14 at 14:24
  • @ZhanlongZheng not really - on: in contact or connection with the surface of, and against: coming in contact with – jimsug May 11 '14 at 14:33
  • 2
    US usage would likewise reject brushed on, and would probably also reject on last year, although we do employ the phrase year-on-year. Over last year would be preferred to both. – StoneyB on hiatus May 11 '14 at 14:41
  • @StoneyB yep. Collins' US entry for 'on' doesn't have that sense, but sense 18 coming after seems to do the trick. Only seems to work with the bare noun, though. – jimsug May 11 '14 at 15:19
  • 1
    An adjective that 'raises' the sense of the iteration works: insult on humiliating insult. – StoneyB on hiatus May 11 '14 at 15:26

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