Are "by accident" and "by chance" interchangeable in the following?

Sam knew the name of the lake by accident.

Sam knew the name of the lake by chance.

  • 2
    I would probably reverse it and say "By chance, Sam knew the name of the lake."
    – Stef
    Nov 19 '21 at 15:54

"By accident," implies an action (or inaction) taken by the person, often leading to negative consequences, e.g.:

He left the gate open by accident and the cow got out.

On the other hand, "by chance," doesn't require the person to have done something, or left it undone, and it often involves past events, e.g.:

By chance, he had met her father before.


She picked a safe path by chance [or by happenstance].

She picked a dangerous path by accident [or by misadventure].

  • Does "by chance" in the OP example mean "by coincidence"?
    – Apollyon
    Nov 19 '21 at 3:06
  • And does "by accident" in the OP example mean Sam learned the name of the lake? And does "knew the name of the lake by chance" mean he happened to know what the name was at that time, as a state, not as an act?
    – Apollyon
    Nov 19 '21 at 3:30
  • I was contemplating the difference between states and actions in the sentence. Could "know something by accident" refer to the act of discovering some information while one is doing something else? On the other hand, could "know something by chance" refer to the state of having some information?
    – Apollyon
    Nov 19 '21 at 5:47
  • It was only by chance that Sam knew the name of the lake. He had happened to hear someone mention it, or read it somewhere, rather than making a deliberate effort to discover it. Presumably it was a good thing that he knew it; we use by accident when referring to negative happenings. Nov 19 '21 at 9:36
  • As a native speaker, "by misadventure" feels unnatural; it's not a wording I would use.
    – Hearth
    Nov 19 '21 at 14:11

“By accident” is similar to “by chance” in this context, but with the added connotation that Sam was not intended to know.

If he knew the name of the lake “by chance” then it implies there was no prior expectation that he know it or not know it. As it just happened to come up on Jeopardy the previous night, he happened to know it. This was neither in line with, nor opposed to, anyone’s intentions.

If he knew it “by accident” there’s a hint of an implication that, according to somebody’s expectations or intentions, Sam was not supposed to know this information. Somebody let it slip “by accident” through Sam’s clever interrogation tricks, or because they didn’t realize he was eavesdropping.

“By accident” only reads well if it’s clear from context whose point of view we’re taking (i.e. who is the “somebody” whose intentions/expectations were thwarted).

  • 2
    "By accident" does appear to add a hint that something is wrong, but it's really unclear what. I would avoid using this construct, and write something more explicit. "Unbeknownst to the kidnappers, Sam already knew the name of the lake" or "The drunkard had accidentally let the name of the lake slip in their conversation the preceding night"
    – Stef
    Nov 19 '21 at 15:58
  • 1
    I can imagine a comedic author writing something like "Sam was neither studious nor curious; he only knew things by accident." It's an unusual turn of phrase, not grammatically wrong, but the idea of knowing something by accident is somewhat amusing. As if they tried to not know it, but failed.
    – kaya3
    Nov 20 '21 at 13:31

This could be read two ways:

  1. Sam does know the name of the lake, having discovered it by chance (this implies that he would not be expected to know the name of the lake - perhaps he is not from that area for example). In this case, some event occurred (eg he read an article in the paper) which lead to him discovering the name of the lake.

In this case, it would be more appropriate to say "By chance, Sam knew the name of the lake"

  1. Sam doesn't actually know the name of the lake, but he guesses it and by chance, or by accident, he is correct.

In this example, Sam doesn't know anything. He's just guessed, and got lucky. In this case, it would be more appropriate to say "Sam guessed the name of the lake, and by chance he got it right".

  • "by accident" in your 2nd context, might imply that Sam was for some reason trying to guess wrong, but got it right by mistake. Nov 19 '21 at 17:55
  • @DarrelHoffman true. Nov 22 '21 at 9:42

I would use “by accident” when it was the result of something undesirable happening, and “by chance” when it was merely an unlikely event. But in common speech, people may use “by accident” for both, as a general term for anything that wasn’t intentional.

  • I think this is correct, but would benefit form examples (and removing "I would use"). "Got it right by accident" means they didn't know the answer, whereas "had the answer, by chance" means they surprisingly knew it. And so on. Nov 20 '21 at 3:28

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