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  1. #1
    StuartATL is offline Newbie
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    Post "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    I am the dramaturg for a production of Sam Shepard's play "True West." The characters in the play always refer to living "on the desert" rather than "in the desert". Likewise, the say things like "out on the desert you get to know what's real." My actors struggle with it not sounding natural to them to say "on the desert".

    Researching the two phrases online has been difficult since desert can be an adjective ("on the desert island") but I have found many instances of apparently standard use of "on the desert" as Shepard uses it in the play. For example, there is a Johnny Cash song called "Lost on the desert."

    We use "on" for vast, flat, boundary-less geographic locations in other instances: "on the sea/plains/mesa/prairie" but not usually for desert.

    So can someone shed some light on this?

    Is this a regionalism? (the play takes place in Southern California, USA)
    Is "on the desert" archaic or waning in usage?
    Is there a semantic difference?

    It's a minor point in the script, but Shepard is always so specific in his choices, I know there's something here. Any help would be appreciated.
    Thanks!
    Stuart

  2. #2
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Default Re: "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    Hello Stuart, welcome to Using English!

    "To live on the desert" might also mean "to find one's means of sustenance in the desert"; but it seems that (as you suggest) the implication in your text is of the desert as a large flat (metaphorically) oceanic environment.

    Sometimes you encounter phrases such as "a sea of sand", which embody a similar idea.

    It would not surprise me to discover that this was a regional usage, or unremarkable among those who have business with deserts. Maybe one of our US contributors will know.

    Best wishes,

    MrP

    Not a professional ESL teacher.

  3. #3
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    I've found two examples of "on the desert" where "desert" isn't an adjective. I think they won't be helpful but I'm not sure so I'll post them.
    Quote Originally Posted by The SAS at war 1941–1945. Kemp, Anthony. London: John Murray (Pubs) Ltd, 1991, pp. 1-96. 1746 s-units.
    The one carrying Bonnington's party had been damaged by anti-aircraft fire. With a defective engine, little fuel and no instruments, the pilot decided to land, imagining that he was back over British-held territory. With great skill he managed to get the overladen aircraft down on the desert , but at dawn they discovered German traffic on a nearby road.
    Quote Originally Posted by Gardens of meditation. Falconar, A E I. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe Ltd, 1980, pp. 7-103. 1790 s-units.
    Rumi compared the tears and the effect they have on the soul to drops of rain on the desert . In the translation of Rumi's odes by Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch and Mohammed Mokri in French, he says: Le ciel a repandu des perles sur la poussiere de la plaine miserable, C'est pour cela qu'elle supporte sa misere, par amour de ceux qui ravissent notre coeur. Ce nuage est comme Jacob, cette fleur comme Joseph dans la prairie. C'est a cause de nos yeux qui repandent des larmes que le visage de Joseph est epanoui: Une de ces gouttes sera perle, une autre narcisse …
    Last edited by birdeen's call; 19-Aug-2010 at 09:46.

  4. #4
    albertino is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    To my guess, is it an American way to say "on the desert" rather than "in the desert(British)", as with the "in a street/road(British)" and "on a street/road(American)"?
    Last edited by albertino; 19-Aug-2010 at 09:58.

  5. #5
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    New examples. I think they are apter.
    Quote Originally Posted by Firehorn, Robert Reed, 2009
    Assorted animal DNA was used to produce three sterile creatures bearing a modest resemblance to the beast of my dreams. One Firehorn was created for no other purpose than to be killed and shown to the world's cameras human monsters loving their fifteen nanoseconds of fame. Another beast was released on the desert and dead within a week from exposure and thirst. The third Firehorn was designed to be the mascot of a young geneengineering company, but the poor beast developed an allergy to peanuts, and its death played a small, critical role in the destruction of that fledging business empire.
    Quote Originally Posted by Nude Ranching, Smith J.D., 1999
    They're called wild horses now, but back then most of the horses out there on the desert had been raised as farm animals.

  6. #6
    TheParser is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    Quote Originally Posted by birdeen's call View Post
    New examples. I think they are apter.
    Thank you for your great examples. They show that on the desert

    seems to emphasize the terrain of that area. It has a different

    meaning from living in the desert.

  7. #7
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    Congratulations, TheParser, on your becoming a Key Member!

    I'm not sure if I understand your distinction... What does "to emphasize the terrain of that area" mean?

  8. #8
    TheParser is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: "In the desert" vs. "On the desert"

    Quote Originally Posted by birdeen's call View Post
    Congratulations, TheParser, on your becoming a Key Member!

    I'm not sure if I understand your distinction... What does "to emphasize the terrain of that area" mean?
    Thank you for your note.

    I had not noticed my "promotion." Thank you for pointing it out to me.

    By terrain, I meant the land itself. In other words, living on the desert

    might imply how hard it is to live on a surface like a desert. But maybe a

    sentence like I love living in the desert refers to the quiet and solitude

    of the place.

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