Wednesday 29 February 2012

On watching

A correspondent writes to say he has been hearing watch used with reference to new movies in the cinema, as in Have you watched The Artist? and I watched The Artist last week. He would use see in such a context and wonders what I think. For him, Have you watched The Artist could only mean 'Have you seen it on TV or on a DVD?'

The verb watch has always had a note of alertness in it, from its earliest uses in Old English meaning 'keep awake' or 'keep vigil': it is 'seeing + attention'. In its transitive uses, there's typically some notion of surveillance or vigilance, either physical or mental. A passive sense of 'seeing' isn't mentioned in the OED, but it's certainly there with such collocations as watch television and watch a DVD, where 'alertness' has broadened into some notion of 'closeness'. My correspondent uses as another example the contrast between I watched the birds at my bird feeder (where he observed them closely) and I saw the birds at my bird feeder (which suggests that he has stopped watching or that they are no longer there).

But the collocation watch + movies is a powerful one, hugely reinforced by sites which ask us to watch movies online (32 million hits for this phrase in Google). And it's a very short step from I'm going to watch something on TV to I'm going to watch something at the cinema. So I'm not surprised to see this usage gaining ground. There are hundreds of online examples like these:

Last night my wife and I watched The Artist....
I watched The Artist about a month ago...
I'm going to watch The Artist tonight...

It's not my usage - yet. I still say see, like my correspondent. But I think it's only a matter of time...


  1. Watch this space!

    Interesting as ever. Thank you. And yes, I'm with the old brigade on this one. I also say (and teach) "see a film", not "watch a film".

  2. It's useful to some degree, because to see a DVD is a different thing entirely.

    The rules change again in different tenses, too: I'd happily ask "did you see X last night" but never say "can you call back; I'm seeing X". I'd say "I've seen the Artist" but never "I've watched the Artist".

    I'd happily say "I've watched" or "I've seen Community", but I'd always say "I've seen this episode".

  3. David:
    Here in New Jersey,it's not my idiolect. I have always "seen" movies (AmE). However, in conversation about a film I might very well say: "I saw "Gone with the Wind" at the Majestic, and I had to tell the person in front of me to be quiet when I was watching the burning of Atlanta." However, in line with your statement, I would normally say that "I watched a re-run of "Star Wars" on TV last night."

  4. For as far back as I can remember (more than fifty years - yikes!), in American usage (at least, where I grew up), you watched television. So you see films in movie theatres, and watch films on television, and this is nothing new.

  5. I use "see TV" and "watch TV" interchangeably, I think.

  6. Hm. "See" is being used in different ways here, but "watch" has the same meaning over both examples.

    I saw birds in my garden.
    I watched birds in my garden.

    I saw a good film on TV.
    I watched a good film on TV.

  7. The last three comments are going away from my question. i'm not concerned about watching and seeing TV. The question raised is about the trend to 'watch' a film at the cinema. That's what is new.

    And don;t forget, everyone: if you're sending a comment about usage, I need to have some sociolinguistic background, otherwise the comment is uninterpretable.

  8. Is there a parallel extension of listen from radio to public performances? Does anyone go to a venue in order to listen to the Messiah? or listen to a concert? or listen to a reading?

    I think I grew up exclusively going to hear — or more often see — such performances, even though the enjoyment came from listening.

    (Sociolinguistic context: British, late sixties middle-class, brought up in Nottingham.)

  9. Interesting point. There's certainly a parallel. Listening is often described as hearing + attention.

  10. As someone said, when you go out to a cultural event you usually see it, even if it's a concert, but in the home you listen to music or to the radio.

    Using watch is doubtless related to the invention of home motion picture technologies over the past fifty years.

    Videos, DVDs and downloaded files are watched because they're watched in the home, with a private group of friends.

    The use is likely to be generalised in this context.

    As a kid myself, I would still use "see", or more likely "went to see" for the cinema, but I had to think hard about it.

  11. I think this is about the experience (see) versus the activity (watch). The present perfect, "have you...", is compatible with talking about things you've experienced.
    We say "Have you seen Midnight in Paris?" rather than "Did you watch it?" because we're curious about the experience as a whole rather than the activity.
    Watching is about the activity, so it goes with the kinds of things we do at home on a routine basis. Listening to music (not hearing) watching TV (not seeing).
    Back to the cinema. "You didn't answer my call. What were you doing?" I was at the cinema watching Midnight in Paris.
    This isn't really about the location, cinema vs. home.
    Anyway "Have you watched the Artist" doesn't quite work in my dialect (US North Central).

  12. I spy, with my little eye....

  13. Unknown

    We say "Have you seen Midnight in Paris?" rather than "Did you watch it?" because we're curious about the experience as a whole rather than the activity.

    In my sort of British English, there's a distinction between life experience and activity on a particular occasion, but it's conveyed entirely by the choice of Present Perfect vs Past Simple.

    For me, the specific activity meaning would be conveyed by Did you watch it? if it was on TV, or Did you go and see it? if it was at a cinema. If it wasn't a specific screening at a specific time understood by me and my hearer —such as on Channel Four last night or at the Odeon last week — then I wouldn't use the Past Simple.

  14. We say "Have you seen Midnight in Paris?" rather than "Did you watch it?" because we're curious about the experience as a whole rather than the activity.

    For me (58, US Southeast) "did you watch it?" about a movie in the theater could only mean "did you pay attention to it?" and would usually be implying "no you did not or you wouldn't have just said that stupid thing."

    However, I can saw "I saw Hugo on On Demand", or "I didn't see Hugo when it was out, but I did see it on HBO", though "I watched Hugo last night" is also normal.

  15. I think the main difference between the two is in duration.
    “I watched him” is different than “I saw him” because the first indicates a longer length of time than the latter example. In the first example, “watched” implies that the “him” is intriguing in some way (attractive, suspicious, etc). The second example connotes that the “him” is not of prime importance requiring only a glance or brief observation.

    When these two words are applied to film, duration no longer becomes and issue. Neither, “I watched the movie” or “I saw the movie” changes the length of the movie. Because duration is no longer what these two words are commenting on, they seem to imply a difference in mood with regard to the movie.

    I’m interested in thoughts on this. I know when I say, “I saw the movie” that is generally the end of discussion. If I use “watched” then I will probably have more to say about that particular movie.

  16. I think this aspectual approach is illuminating. Several of the observations in my original post could be interpreted in this way.

  17. Seen is more fleeting - you may only see it once, as with a movie at the cinema.
    To watch seems more detailed, as though there is more to it - a series perhaps with a continuation, or somethng giving information or involvement - maybe a Panorama report. To see something suggests a more passive approach, less planned, more along the lines of to 'catch' a movie.