Polish students often confuse the words accident and incident, frequently using the former when they mean the latter. Both accident and incident mean “something that happens.” But when native speakers think of an accident, they unconsciously assume the following:
1. It was not planned, not expected, and it happened unintentionally.
2. The results were unfortunate, whether very serious or slight. Either someone was hurt, or something was damaged.
An incident, on the other hand, does not have to fulfil these conditions. An incident may or may not be planned, or staged, by at least one participant. Very often there is some intention involved—that is, somebody decides to act. It may result in no damage, injury or misfortune whatsoever. Although incident is often used for violent situations, an incident is not necessarily violent.
If two people meet in the street and begin to fight, this is an incident, because at least one person intends to fight. However, if the same two people collide, or walk into each other, because they didn’t see each other, this is an accident.
Very often, when native speakers hear the word accident, they think immediately of an automobile accident. A plane crash is a type of accident. However, it’s important to remember that an accident can also be as trivial as someone dropping and breaking a dish.
We can also use the words event, happening, or occurrence instead of incident. However, the words event and happening often refer to something which is planned and publicised in advance—such as a concert, party, etc.
There was a strange incident in the pizzeria yesterday. A man got up and started to shout at the other customers for no reason.
There was an unfortunate accident in the pizzeria yesterday. A waitress dropped a whole seafood pizza on the floor.
There was a wonderful event at the pizzeria yesterday. They were celebrating their tenth anniversary, so they gave out free pizza to everybody who stopped by.