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Which is more common, "on the air" or "on air" The TV show was on air many years ago.

The TV show was on the air many years ago.

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  • I would say that "on the air" is more common, although I don't think you would face any confusion using either.
    – windwally
    Oct 28, 2021 at 19:03
  • on the air is more common for sure.
    – Lambie
    Oct 28, 2021 at 20:13
  • As a radio and electronics fan it always used to bother me that people think that radio waves need air to travel through. Oct 28, 2021 at 20:31
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    @MichaelHarvey Yes it's ridiculous. Everyone knows it's ether that's the medium. :) Oct 28, 2021 at 23:03
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    Wow, it surprises me. I think "on air" is more common. I looked up the phrase in Longman dictionary and Oxford dictionary. They say "be on / off (the) air. The examples they give omit the word "the" eg. We'll be on air in three minutes. eg. We will be back on air tomorrow morning at 7.
    – Carol
    Oct 29, 2021 at 8:06

1 Answer 1

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Webster's dictionary defines "on the air" as an idiomatic term for broadcasting, and in the same entry notes that 'on air' is a "less common variant".

However, this ngram would suggest otherwise, with "live on air" being used far more than "live on the air".

This image is typical of the kind of sign you expect to see outside a radio or television studio. I searched for images of these and they were overwhelmingly "on air", with only the odd one saying "on the air", and those looked like mock-ups rather than real photographs.

On-air sign

Signage is usually abbreviated, so the fact they say "on air" doesn't mean that is the correct phrase. However, it may be that the abbreviation has come to be used more frequently. I have certainly heard both, and I don't believe either is incorrect. Personally, I would tend to use "on air" with reference to live broadcasting (eg "the show is on air right now") and "on the air" with reference to programming that is currently scheduled (eg "the show has been on the air for ten years", meaning it is still airing regularly, not constantly broadcasting that long).

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    I have the same intuition: "on air" seems specific to live broadcasting, while "on the air" could also refer to scheduled programming.
    – nschneid
    Oct 29, 2021 at 17:49

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