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The following typical sentence uses the preposition of :

Construction of the plant began in November 1938, and completed by the following summer

But I've discovered some instances when on is used:

Construction on the plant is expected to begin in late summer, and the plant is expected to be open by spring or early summer of 2015. (from Jackson Sun)

and

Construction on the plant started in the late 1970s. (from The Steel Industry of China)

and

Construction on the Shidao Bay plant began in 2011 but was suspended in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, the China Internet Information Center said. (from Australia Network News)

Is the use of the on preposition a typo or a mistake? Or is there some subtle difference in meaning? Could it be a shortening of "construction work on the plant started in..."?

In Russian we may only say "construction of the plant began in..", so I tend to translate such sentences using of only. On seems counterintuitive. To start some operation on something, one has to have that something present in the first place, yet when a new plant construction project is launched, there is no plant present.

"Construction on the plant", when rendered in Russian, would mean adding some facility or building to an already existing plant.

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    We often hear reports like "Work on the project began in November" but I can't recall any "construction" equivalent. – doc Jul 8 '14 at 15:54
  • Then I could've stumbled upon an incorrect use of the preposition. I'll remake the question a bit. – CowperKettle Jul 8 '14 at 15:58
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    Plenty of occurrences on "construction on the plant began" or "construction on the building began" if we google them. It's clear on that page that it is about the beginning of the building itself. – Laure Jul 8 '14 at 17:09
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    To me, when I hear construction has begun on a site, I think more of headworks than of the buildings which will follow. "On the plant" is similar. It may be a new usage Or legalese, to distinguish successive phases of development. If this relates to a contract, I'd be securing the services of a contract lawyer. Your contractors could even be trying to avoid admitting they haven't started. – doc Jul 9 '14 at 1:58
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    Headworks meaning surveying, ground levelling and drainage, service pipes, anything to ready the site for construction. – doc Jul 9 '14 at 4:44
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The issue is fundamentally the difference between phrases (where noun1 is a verbal noun):

  • noun1 of noun2 (A verbal noun being part of an Entity. Relatively more noun-like.)
  • noun1 on noun2 (A verbal noun applied or directed to an Entity. Relatively more verb-like)

In this case, "of" is being used as follows:

Define of: (Oxford Dictionary)

6.) Expressing the relationship between an abstract concept having a verb-like meaning and a noun denoting the subject of the underlying verb: the opinion of the directors
the decision of the County Council

6.1) Where the second noun denotes the object of the underlying verb:
the murder of two boys
payment of his debts
an admirer of Dickens

And "on" is used as follows:

Define on: (Oxford Dictionary)

5.) Having (the thing mentioned) as a target, aim, or focus:
five air raids on Schweinfurt
thousands marching on Washington
her eyes were fixed on his dark profile

Examples of the noun-like use of of:

  • X of Y.
  • War of 1812.
  • Development of Character.
  • Analysis of Variance.
  • The Battle of Gettysburg. (In 1863, in the Battle of Gettysburg, General Lee's initial attack on Union forces appeared to be a sign of success.)
  • Act of Kindness. (This is provided to show that not all forms follow this pattern. In this case, "Kindness" is describing the type of "Act". "Act" is not a verbal property/relation of "Kindness".)

Examples of the verb-like use of on:

  • X on Y.
  • War on Terror.
  • Debate on Immigration.
  • Effects on Tourism.
  • Agreement on Terms.

There are not as many cases where you can use both "of" and "on". Consider the following which further demonstrates the differences:

  • Construction of the new tower will begin January of next year. Focus is construction of the the tower as a whole.
  • Construction on the new tower will begin January of next year. Focus is on the construction as an activity performed to create the building.

  • payment of his debts. This phrase is natural when discussing the full payment. Payment is like a property of his debt, resulting in a noun-like meaning.

  • payment on his debts. This might be a partial payment. Payment is an action applied to his debt, resulting in a verb-like meaning.

When you can use both "on" or "of", the difference can often be quite small, especially when seen in isolation. However, a skilled writer might make a decision on one over the other for subtle rhetoric, style, or other distinctions of meaning.


Note: @user42307's fine answer provides a great example of what I mean by a skilled writer choosing a single word for rhetorical purposes!

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As a hardened journalist, I'm used to nipping at the heels of politicians who have something to hide. Usually these people are careful not to actually lie - and in the attempt, get entangled in some pretty wobbly English.

If, say, a pollie were asked to justify the allocation of significant sums of money for a production plant which is rumoured never to have even commenced, I can quite imagine certain politicians replying,

"Construction on the plant is expected to begin in late summer."

(That's just 5 seconds before the politician finds a pressing need to leave very quickly in a black limo). - And just 10 seconds before a horde of journos start yelling for a clarification, and just 5 days before the particular politician is found to be embroiled in a corruption scandal.

"Construction on the plant" is high up there on my list of "What exactly do you means"... anybody can make a slip of the tongue, a typo, or use a little-known Ozark mountain term. But failing to clarify when asked?

Legal translators know this stuff. Contractors are notorious for trying to solve their cash-flow problems by trying to qualify early for their next financial advance. Wobbly, unorthodox terms will come thick and fast. Frankly, we don't go around talking about "construction on a plant" and get away with it.

When Carter and Sadat were at Camp David and confronted with Begin's ambiguous English draft agreement, they solved the issue tactfully by asking for a French translation of the Israeli offer, as was their diplomatic right. Since you cannot successfully obfuscate in two languages, the Israelis had to clarify and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty became reality.

CopperKettle, Don't be bullied. Be strong enough in your convictions when you translate so as to demand clarification.

  • Thanks for a tip! I'm not being bullied at the moment, just trying to expand my vocabulary. I find asking questions a good way to make a word or expression stick in my mind. – CowperKettle Jul 9 '14 at 10:51
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In my opinion, the key is to know the place where the construction is happening! Or else, the usage of on or of is quite clear.

Consider this (without plant):

The construction of the building has started = They have dug the ground, the iron bars are tied, all the base/pillars are now getting constructed.

The construction on the ground has started = It's just ground. Now the construction has started on it.

But, that's not the case here. It's about plant...

So...

When you start construction of plant, you probably start from zero.

And if you start construction on plant, the plant probably exists and you add something to improve by further constructing on it. It could be new machinery, new block or the like.

Now your sentences:

The all three examples you quoted talk about constructing the plants from zero and finishing them at whatsoever period. The only sentence that uses construction on is I think yours, I mean your own creation which means the plant was getting improved i.e. the plant already existed and some additional construction happened on it.

  • Thanks, Maulik! I could've stumbled upon a typo in Google Books. The use of on is rare. I've reworked the question. – CowperKettle Jul 8 '14 at 16:02
  • @snailplane, thanks. I was on my mobile. Could not recognized those with T9 language on! :) – Maulik V Jul 9 '14 at 12:42

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