General Question

Neophyte's avatar

Based on vs. Based upon?

Asked by Neophyte (270 points ) October 12th, 2011

My history teacher recently returned a writing assignment to our class, and upon receiving my paper, I noticed that she had marked a word choice error on my paper in the following sentence:

“Plato, Socrates’ favorite and most successful pupil, based much of his work upon his mentor.”, with the word “upon” circled. When I asked her about it, she said that the word should have been “on”.

From an academic standpoint, which is more correct to use in a formal writing assignment? Is one more formal than the other? Do they have the same meaning?

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8 Answers

Aethelflaed's avatar

Most sources tend to agree that you should use “upon” sparingly and usually just for literary effect. In other words, the “trap” in this Grammar Trap isn’t so much one of proper vs. improper use, but of readability vs. verbiosity.

On or upon?
Example: I rely upon my friends to move my furniture.
OK, “upon” isn’t incorrect, but it’s overkill since “on” works better. Using “upon” here is the equivalent of using an archaic (and overly florid) form of address — “Thou art wise to avoid using such execrable prepositions” instead of “It’s a good idea to avoid ‘upon.’”

Up on or upon?
Example: I put my dusty old books up on the shelf.
Even when “up” and “on” go together like this, I would stick to two words to avoid the archaic usage.
Use literary effect sparingly. I don’t serve up purple prose to describe spraying for ants, so I would avoid writing, “Spray thy chemical products forthwith upon the preying myrmidons.” I would be more direct, “Spray the product directly on the ants.”

When is the effect appropriate? When you’re borrowing a phrase (like the “placed upon a pedestal” example I began with) or you really want to provide some archaic effect. But if your plan is to write in this century, stick with “on” rather than “upon” in most cases. (Source)

So, mostly, it isn’t incorrect, your teacher is just a bit uptight.

Response moderated (Writing Standards)
zensky's avatar

I don’t disagree with what has been written – I just tend to take a different approach. English, a very special language that has changed and evolved, and continues to over the years – has semantic and grammatical ebbs and flows. Upon isn’t what I would call “archaic”. I would reserve that term for really older or ancient terms no longer in use – like Thou and Thine.

Here’s an example of a pop hit from the late 70’s – by no other than Michael Jackson:

So tonight Gotta leave that nine to five upon the shelf An’ just enjoy yourself Groove Let the madness in the music get to you Life ain’t so bad at all If you live it off the wall Life ain’t so bad at all Live your life off the wall

What is upon anyway? It’s basically connecting the two words and making them into one, like “outside” and “indoors.”

If the shelf is right in front of you – then you put something on it. If it is high up, and you want to stress that, put it upon the shelf.

In the other meaning, i.e. together with “rely” or lean upon, I think one should use poetic license; up – which means higher, above – lends a loftiness – a certain something to the expression – and if you need to lean upon your friend, you is in a higher position than you (simply because it is thou who leanest upon him) then why not say upon, rather than on.

There is simply that added syllable, and for music’s sake, one would use either on, or upon, depending on the meter.

fizzbanger's avatar

“Based upon” sounds more scholarly, and IMO, flows better in a paper. Neither is wrong.

Nimis's avatar

I agree with your teacher. Yes, I can be a bit uptight.
Avoid the longer word if a shorter one does the job.

It also just comes down to flow.
Based much of his work upon his mentor sounds unnecessarily verbose.
Whereas based much of his work upon the principles of blah blah blah sounds fine.

That’s just my gut take on it.
It’s 2:40AM and I’m not about to bust out the MLA or APA.

EDIT: I don’t think you should approach this as being right or wrong.
Rather, which is the better choice for getting your ideas across to the reader.
Personally, too much academic fluff biases how I will read the rest of your paper.

ragingloli's avatar

My personal opinion is that you should use archaic (and longer) words instead of modern variants whenever you can. The english language is devolving enough already.

Buttonstc's avatar

Honestly, my first impression upon reading this Q was: Wow! Nitpicky much?

I’m glad that wasn’t my teacher. And I tried not to be that type of teacher in my own classes.

But then again I spent the majority of my time trying to counter the “Ebonics” tendencies of my Elementary students, so what do I know?

For me, it was a good day when one of my students really understood WHY saying things like “aks” instead of “ask” was important if they had any aspirations of getting a decent job in their adult life.

In the end it’s your teacher and that’s the one you have to please, so…

I just think it’s an extremely subtle distinction in search of importance. There are bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

And I’m normally quite finicky about grammar, spelling and language usage.

I’m just not THAT finicky.

For me, it’s a giant yawn. Sorry but that’s my honest reaction :)

gailcalled's avatar

Maybe it’s just me (or I), but in that context, both are incorrect.

You base your work on (or upon) the work of your mentor.

Plato did not base his work on Socrates.

Following his gut, @NImis made the same distinction but without labeling it formally.

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