LINGUIST List 7.1525

Mon Oct 28 1996

Sum: _watch_

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Dick Hudson, summary: WATCH

Message 1: summary: WATCH

Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 13:04:47 GMT
From: Dick Hudson <>
Subject: summary: WATCH

A week or so ago I broadcast a query about the use of WATCH with an
implicit object, as in "Hey don't do that - I'm watching!" (in
TV-watching context). Information has flooded in - what a wonderful
research tool Linguist is! - and the following is a report on progress
so far. The facts seem remarkably clear, but they raise some
interesting theoretical questions. There's a list of contributors at
the end of the message - thanks to all 37 of them!

1. The data and the change.

My query concerned utterance (1).
(1) (You're watching TV, and someone else changes
channel.) Hey, don't do that - I'm watching!

My point was that this is fine for me but my students rejected
it. Almost everyone who replied agreed with my students. I did receive
support from a few older Brits, but almost all the Americans (and an
Australian) rejected (1). The answers were slightly noisy - two USA
replies may not have been tied to this specific context; and I
discovered one Brit of my generation who rejected (1). With these
exceptions, it seems that the *only* people who allow (1) are Brits of
>40. I had replies from older americans who rejected it, so I think we
can assume that the change in UK has been an example of transatlantic
influence - our youngsters falling into line with all Americans.

I also asked how the change could have taken place, on the assumption
that all the relevant senior models were like me - but of course
that's not so if the models are american. Presumably if they're
american, they must be on tv, where it's common to have scenes of
people watching tv.

2. Theory and analysis.

That's not the end of the question, though. What, precisely, is going
on in linguistic terms? This question is prompted by the most
fascinating part of the exercise, which is that four different
correspondents independently pointed out that the details of the
situation are crucial: these judgements are correct for the situation
where the other person changes channel, but *not* where the other
switches the tv off altogether! When I first heard this I didn't
believe it but when it kept coming in I decided it must be true. It
seems that *everybody* accepts utterance (2). (2) (You're watching
TV, and someone else switches the set off.) Hey,
 don't do that - I'm watching!

 Why on earth should it matter what the other person does? Answer: it
changes the nature of the understood object from definite to
indefinite. (This is a well-known distinction which I'm afraid I can't
support with references; if anyone else could offer some
bibliographical respectability I'll share it.) In
(1), "I'm watching" means `I'm watching this (programme)' (definite),
but in
(2) it means `I'm watching tv', i.e. I'm doing some tv-watching
(indefinite). And everyone is happy with indefinite-object
intransitive WATCH.
 So what, precisely, has changed between my generation and my
students? Or what's the difference between me and my American
counterparts? This is where theory comes in, because we can't be sure
whether it's a difference of language or of culture - is it the
subcategorization of WATCH, or how we classify tv programmes? Let me
explain the alternatives in the context of some other English verbs
and uses of WATCH.

a. Language change

If WATCH has changed its subcategorization/valency, we must be able to
say exactly how. It's clearly not simply a change from optional object
(me) to obligatory object (youngsters), because everyone accepts
(2). It seems that indefinite understood objects are fine just as with
verbs like SING and READ.

(3) I sang/read/watched for an hour before going to bed. Here each
verb has its prototypical object as its understood object - songs,
books/papers, tv. It seems that tv is now the prototypical watch-ee!
There's another intransitive use of WATCH which everyone likes, when
it has the meaning `keep watch'.
(4) Pat broke into the car while Jo watched.
Presumably this can mean that Jo watched for danger.
 Moreover, plenty of people pointed out to me that they can omit the
object in cases where the understood object is a definite event:
(5) Pat danced while Jo watched. Here Jo didn't just do some
watching, but she specifically watched Pat's dancing. (It could of
course have the same meaning as (4).) Similarly for examples like (6).
(6) A. Now I'm going to press this button. Are you watching (me)?
 B. Yes, I'm watching.
Therefore the change can't involve a prohibition on optional
*definite* objects. The restriction to `events' is needed because I
don't think WATCH does allow understood objects when its object is a
person or thing (this is just my judgement): 
(7) A. Would you watch my suitcase for me while I buy a paper, please?
 B. Sure - I'll watch *(it).
However you might think that a tv programme would qualify as an event
- after all, tv is solid wall-to-wall event, isn't it? So it's very
odd that people accept (5) and (6) while rejecting (1).
 The purely linguistic explanation of the change doesn't seem to help.
Everyone allows WATCH to have an understood definite object provided this
is an event, so if a tv programme is an event, it should be ok as an
understood definite object.

b. Culture change.

Several people suggested that the change might have affected the
culture, not the language. This strikes me as a more plausible avenue
to explore, fraught though it may be with dangers (especially for a
mere linguist!). Maybe I classify tv programmes as events, while our
youngsters classify them as things? Interestingly, Tim Pulju reports
that "I've lived in Texas for several years now and have gotten used
to hearing people say that they're _looking at_ the TV." For me, LOOK
AT is much better with things (e.g. books) than with events
(e.g. football matches). WATCH needs a dynamic object (as my research
student Nik Gisborne points out in his PhD dissertation), whereas LOOK
AT prefers a static one.
 How would this idea help? It would mean that youngsters and I have
the same range of sub-lexemes for WATCH, but choose a different one
for tv programmes. We all have WATCH/1 and WATCH/2:
WATCH/1: object is an event, which may be implicit and definite (e.g.
WATCH/2: object is a thing, which must be explicit (e.g. the suitcase in

The question is whether a tv programme is an event or a thing; my
answer is that it's an event, while the youngsters think it's a
thing. (Maybe you're even watching it in the same way as you watch a
suitcase, just in case something happens!) Maybe what makes us all
think of tv-in-general as events is the fact that the channel can be
changed - but maybe for Texans even this isn't enough.
 If this hypothesis is correct then we need an explanation for the
change in culture. Presumably the fact that I never see tv till I was
a teenager is relevant, but the logic would need to be spelled
out. That's too difficult for a linguist so I give up!

Thanks to:

Ron Anderson, Julian Bradfield, Kevin Caldwell, Billy Clark, Chet
Creider, Annabel Cormack, Alan Cornell, Ian Crookston, Peter Daniels,
Michael Earl Darnell, Clyde Davenport, Will Dowling, Marie Egan,
Thomas Egan, Maik Gibson, Keith Goeringer, Lee Hartman, Hendrik ?, Lou
Hillman, Chris Johns, Mike Jones, Stavros Macrakis, Melanie Misanchuk,
John Nelson, Jeff Parrott, Timothy Pulju, Ronald Ross, Deborah D. Kela
Ruuskanen, Geoff Sampson, Robert Schlosser, Charles Scott, Linda
Shockey, Marilyn Silva, Bill Turkel, Max Wheeler, david wilmsen, Debra

Richard (=Dick) Hudson
Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
work phone: +171 419 3152; work fax: +171 383 4108
 home page =
 unpublished papers available by ftp =
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