I am from Poland and my private teacher said that the phrase "What is on TV?" is grammatically incorrect and she told me about phrase "What is on on TV?" which is according to her grammatically correct.

I would like to know which phrase is correct because as I ask my English friends they say that first one is valid and I am little confused.

  • If you want to blow his mind, show him this: youtube.com/watch?v=sShMA85pv8M – Hot Licks Feb 16 '18 at 1:59
  • In fact What's on TV? is the most common expression. What is on TV? is also correct. The other one is absolutely incorrect; no native English speaker says that in unironic everyday English. – green_ideas Feb 16 '18 at 4:43
  • I can, but I've already explained it below. I agree the “rule” is somewhat unnecessary, but sacking somebody for one opinion you disagree with seems like what Interpersonal Skills would call the nuclear option. – Will Crawford Feb 16 '18 at 11:04
  • @AndyT I believe that I can just about remember a time when some people said "What's on on TV?" or "What's on on the radio" with a slight pause betweeen the two 'ons'. The logic behind it is that it has the same structure as "What's on at the theatre (or cinema)", which can certainly be parsed. I haven't heard it for decades and I've certainly never used it as an adult so the tutor is guilty of confusing the OP with outdated English and gross pedantry. The form did exist but I don't believe anyone uses it any more. – BoldBen Feb 16 '18 at 15:48
  • 1
    What's on, on ON TV? – choster Feb 16 '18 at 16:12

Your version is, to put it mildly, much more common and idiomatic.

It is the source of a popular children's joke:

Q: What's on the television tonight, Dad?
A: Same as usual, Son — the goldfish bowl and some flowers!

The “corrected” version is based on the notion that the first on is what’s currently being broadcast, and the second is describing where it appears. It's not helpful, but at least preempts the aforementioned silly joke.

For those who perceive it as mere tautology, the first “on” means playing, as in What's on at the theatre tonight?, or happening, or up. The second is about the presence of the image on the screen.

It’s not that the teacher is grammatically incorrect, simply that almost no-one says it that way any more.

  • 3
    We might need to explain to younger readers that old CRT TVs stood on the floor and were wide enough to put things on - if you’ve only ever known wall mounted flat screens, that joke makes no sense at all ;-) – JonLarby Feb 16 '18 at 7:23
  • @JonLarby that might explain why I was unable to find a citation for the joke after fifteen minutes with Google(!) :o) – Will Crawford Feb 16 '18 at 10:53
  • 1
    "the notion that the first on is what’s currently being broadcast, and the second is describing where it appears." Sorry, but this doesn't work for me as an explanation at all! – peterG Feb 16 '18 at 11:12
  • How would you parse the "on" in "what's on at the theatre?" then? – Will Crawford Feb 16 '18 at 11:21
  • @peterG - It took me a while to get it, but Will is right. Try inserting "at 8pm" into the sentence. The only way to then make it work is to have two ons: "What's on at 8pm on TV?". Idiomatitcally of course we'd rephrase this to "What's on TV at 8pm?" but there's no grammatical reason not to put "at 8pm" first. – AndyT Feb 16 '18 at 15:57

"What's on TV?" is better, because "What's on?" means "What's on TV?", and if "What's on on TV" were acceptable, it would mean "What's on TV on TV?", which is ungrammatical.

  • 1
    Not really, the first “on” does mean something slightly different. Like "What's on at the theatre”, the first means “[What’s] happening” or “[What’s] playing". – Will Crawford Feb 16 '18 at 9:12
  • @WillCrawford, I agree that if "What's on on TV?" were grammatical, the first "on" would have to be given a different interpretation such as the one you describe. – Greg Lee Feb 16 '18 at 14:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy