Sometimes I am struck by the use of prepositions by native speakers. Here is one example.

He wipes his mouth on the napkin. (So Much Water So Close to Home by Raymond Carver)

All dictionaries will translate this correctly and also correctly give their own version which is more logical:

He wipes his mouth with a napkin.

Could you explain such flexible use of prepositions on and with.

  • He wiped his mouth on my sleeve. He wiped his mouth with a napkin. – Weather Vane May 7 '20 at 16:29
  • As Weather Vane suggests, to wipe something on something else usually implies passing the dirty thing over a fixed object, such as wiping your shoes on the doormat, rather than passing a cloth over it. – Kate Bunting May 7 '20 at 16:40
  • wipes his mouth with a napkin, not a tablecloth: the object used. Mothers might tell kids: don't wipe your mouth on your shirt. – Lambie May 7 '20 at 16:41

As a generality the construction "He wipes X on Y" suggests that X is the active noun and Y is passive (being acted upon), whereas "He wipes X with Y" suggests that X is passive and Y is active. So if the napkin is being moved to wipe the mouth then "wipes his mouth with a napkin" is correct, but if the mouth is being moved to the napkin then "wipes his mouth on the napkin" is correct.

As you can imagine there are a lot of situations where there is a clear distinction of which is right such as "He wiped his shoes on the doormat". The other option would be "He wiped his shoes with the doormat", which would imply that he picked up the doormat and used it to wipe his shoes", which is pretty unlikely.

However there are obviously many cases that can go either way, and it is up to the writer or speaker to pick which is more appropriate.

In the case you bring up it is definitely more common to say "He wiped his face with the napkin", but Raymond Carver may have picked to use the other construction explicitly because it is unusual and it would imply different things about the person or the action being taken.

  • Thank you for the perfect answer. A person who wipes his mouth on a napkin can be weird one, what is probably the author wanted to say. – Vitaly May 7 '20 at 20:34

Both are appropriate prepositions to use with the verb “wipe.”

According to Oxford English Dictionary, “wipe, v.”:

a. transitive. To rub (something) gently with a soft cloth or the like, or on something, so as to clear its surface of dust, dirt, moisture, etc.; to clean or dry in this way. Also with complement.

As you can see, both prepositions may be used with the verb “wipe,” and logically, this is to be expected.

When you wipe with a napkin (as the instrument), the contents residing on the object you are wiping (e.g., food on the lips) will be displaced from that object and onto the napkin.

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