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After reading the on/in/at the job question here, I am a bit perplexed about the most apt choice of word for the following sentence:

She was sleeping ___ the job. (on/in/at)

Sleeping in the job doesn't sounds that good. So we're left with on and at. I know both can be used to reflect different scenarios as if we consider job as a place or not. However I, a high school student, would like to know which usage is more common and more suitable.

Feel free to correct me ____ any grammatical errors in the question body.
(I know a preposition usage here is kind of redundant but still, maybe it could be of?)

Please look to this blank also, which preposition could fill in the blank and feel free to correct any of the grammatical errors you see in the question body.

4 Answers 4

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sleeping on the job is an idiom meaning

Unaware. Distracted from one’s duties.

Ngram shows this to be the only possibility.

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    Also 'asleep at the wheel'. Dec 30, 2023 at 10:53
  • 7
    And sometimes it means unaware because the subject is literally asleep, literally while on the job (at their workplace and supposedly working). Dec 31, 2023 at 0:41
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I think the most appropriate preposition to use in this context is "on".

Using "on" in this context reflects the idea that she was sleeping while performing her job or neglecting her duties. It is an idiomatic expression meaning she was not actively engaged in her work.

As for the second question, I think "on" is the correct preposition, so the sentence would be:

Feel free to correct me on any grammatical errors in the question body

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"on" can be interpreted as "during" or more precisely "while in the state/condition/process of". It's well-suited to be followed by "the job".

"in" and "at", on the other hand, can only be followed by a location.

For this reason "She was sleeping on the job" is the only one which is completely correct.

If you say "She was sleeping at her job", then "her job" has to be a location, i.e. a lazy metonymy for "her place of work". In this case you should at least add an "'s" after "job": "She was sleeping at her job's"; and you might as well explicitly name her job's place, for instance: "She was sleeping at the office". But there is a subtle difference in meaning: "sleeping on the job" means she was sleeping instead of performing her duties, whereas "sleeping at the office" merely means she used the geographical location of her office as a sleeping place, which did not necessarily prevent her from doing her job when she was awake.

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    There is nothing "lazy" about metonymy. And, while I probably wouldn't say at my job myself, I certainly wouldn't say at my job's, and I would go so far as to call that ungrammatical.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 30, 2023 at 17:47
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    I think it is absolutely fine to say "sleeping at her job," but as Stef states, that just means that she did some sleeping while at her job's location; whereas "sleeping on the job" means being inattentive to the needs of her tasks to such an extent that she might as well have been sleeping. It is odd to say "sleeping at the job," since "the job" without a possessive adjectives is rarely used to express a location outside of very specific contexts, such as a metonym for "job site." Dec 30, 2023 at 21:05
  • @ColinFine I didn't say there was something lazy about metonymy in general. I said that this particular metonym was lazy.
    – Stef
    Dec 30, 2023 at 21:59
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    Why is this particular metonymy lazier than any other? I don't get it.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 30, 2023 at 22:02
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The key here is that "on the job" is an idiomatic phrase, and it means "working". So "sleeping on the job" means "sleeping while [supposed to be] working".

There are several similar idiomatic phrases starting with "on the". "On the road" means traveling; "on the mend" means healing or getting better (although it's a little archaic.) I'm having trouble coming up with other examples that are in common use.

I found a few more examples in a linguistics paper: "on the air" means broadcasting (like radio or television.) A lot of the paper's other examples sound very old-timey to me.

https://hal.science/hal-02943243/document

I don't think there's a useful general pattern to learn here. (Unfortunately, I think that's often how prepositions are.) You just have to recognize a few common phrases like this.

And only some of these work with "[verb]ing on the [...]", like your original example. "Drinking on the job", "sleeping on the job", "swearing on the air". I guess when you do see phrases like this, they are usually describing bad things to do.

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    Compare with "on duty". There is also "I'm on it!" or "I'm on top of it!"
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 1 at 1:05
  • Yes, "on duty" seems to me almost a synonym for "on the job", although it doesn't follow the "on the [word]" pattern. I would say that "on it" / "on top of it" feels like a different sort of "on", to me. Jan 1 at 21:59
  • 'On air' seems to be more common than 'on the air'.
    – Tim
    Jan 2 at 9:52

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