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ac·​ci·​den·​tal ˌak-sə-ˈden-tᵊl How to pronounce accidental (audio)
: occurring unexpectedly or by chance
an accidental discovery
Their meeting was purely accidental.
: happening without intent or through carelessness and often with unfortunate results
The death was ruled accidental.
: arising from extrinsic causes : incidental, nonessential
of a bird : appearing outside its normal geographic range, migration route, or season
accidentalness noun


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: a nonessential property
music : a note foreign to a key indicated by a signature
: a prefixed sign indicating an accidental
: a bird found outside its normal geographic range, migration route, or season : vagrant

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between accidental and incidental?

Accidental describes what was not planned or intended. It means "happening by accident" or "happening as an accident," as in "an accidental discovery" and "an accidental injury." Incidental typically means "happening as a minor part or result of something else," as in "a chapter that is incidental to the novel's plot." For more information read the full article.

Do you say 'on accident' or 'by accident'?

While both "by accident" and "on accident" are used, "by accident" is far more common.

What does 'accident waiting to happen' mean?

The phrase "an accident waiting to happen" refers to a person or thing that is dangerous or unsafe. For example, a very clumsy person and a rickety ladder might both be referred to as "an accident waiting to happen."

Choose the Right Synonym for accidental

accidental, fortuitous, casual, contingent mean not amenable to planning or prediction.

accidental stresses chance.

any resemblance to actual persons is entirely accidental

fortuitous so strongly suggests chance that it often connotes entire absence of cause.

a series of fortuitous events

casual stresses lack of real or apparent premeditation or intent.

a casual encounter with a stranger

contingent suggests possibility of happening but stresses uncertainty and dependence on other future events for existence or occurrence.

the contingent effects of the proposed law

Examples of accidental in a Sentence

Adjective an accidental discovery of oil The timing of the announcement was purely accidental. The death was ruled accidental.
Recent Examples on the Web
Hurt shifted the subject to another family whose daughter was killed in an accidental shooting committed by a man who migrated illegally from Mexico. James Rainey, Los Angeles Times, 12 Apr. 2024 But police don’t believe either shooting was accidental. Nathan Pilling, Kansas City Star, 12 Apr. 2024 Winehouse died from accidental alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of 27. Gabrielle Rockson, Peoplemag, 9 Apr. 2024 Clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, the film follows the rebuilding of a metropolis after its accidental destruction, with two competing visions — one from an idealist architect (Adam Driver), the other from its pragmatist mayor (Giancarlo Esposito) — clashing in the process. Seth Abramovitch, The Hollywood Reporter, 8 Apr. 2024 The analysis did not include external causes of death, such as suicide or accidental overdose. Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, CBS News, 8 Apr. 2024 The seemingly endless variety of Mr. Pesce’s works wasn’t accidental. Fred A. Bernstein, New York Times, 4 Apr. 2024 Ketamine can also be associated with accidental death via drowning, falling, vehicular accidents and hypothermia. Dylan Wickman, The Arizona Republic, 4 Apr. 2024 About 10 seconds passed between the accidental shot and Mensah shooting Cole five times, Cole's family's attorneys say. Bridget Fogarty, Journal Sentinel, 29 Mar. 2024
Ana Walshe’s former home in Cohasset burned down in a fire on Saturday night, though investigators deemed the fire accidental, CBS News Boston reported. Conor Murray, Forbes, 18 Jan. 2023 Authorities arrested her boyfriend before declaring the death accidental. Andrew Mark Miller, Fox News, 13 Jan. 2023 Authorities ultimately ruled the death accidental, noting that Jenkins was intoxicated and died of hypothermia, according to NBC New York affiliate WNBC. Char Adams, NBC News, 22 Nov. 2022 The Nevada County Sheriff's Office said in a statement the coroner ruled Rodni's death accidental. CBS News, 14 Oct. 2022 Lansbury was also determined that her own role as the author-cum-accidental detective Jessica Fletcher wasn’t warped by the sexist stereotypes that writers often fell back on. Holly Thomas, CNN, 14 Oct. 2022 Though authorities initially considered the death accidental, the ​​autopsy report later led investigators to believe that Kathleen died not after a fall but after being attacked. Kelsie Gibson,, 5 May 2022 The county sheriff ruled Rishell’s death accidental, and her family had remained close with Harold. Rachel Monroe, Outside Online, 16 Oct. 2018 After Saget's family shared their statement, the medical examiner also released their findings, ruling Saget's death accidental. Greta Bjornson,, 16 Feb. 2022

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'accidental.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History



Middle English, borrowed from Anglo-French accidentel, borrowed from Late Latin accidentālis, from Latin accident-, accidens accident + -ālis -al entry 1


Middle English, borrowed from Medieval Latin accidentālis, noun derivative of Late Latin accidentālis accidental entry 1

First Known Use


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of accidental was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near accidental

Cite this Entry

“Accidental.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


1 of 2 adjective
ac·​ci·​den·​tal ˌak-sə-ˈdent-ᵊl How to pronounce accidental (audio)
: happening unexpectedly or by chance
an accidental discovery of oil
: not happening or done on purpose
an accidental fall
-ˈdent-lē How to pronounce accidental (audio)


2 of 2 noun
: a musical note whose pitch is changed (as by a sharp or a flat) from the pitch shown in the key signature

More from Merriam-Webster on accidental

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