6
  1. You can watch a film through tv.
  2. You can watch a film on tv.

What is the difference between those prepositions?

  • 10
    No one says, "Last night I watched a film through TV." You watch a film on TV at home or at the theater on the bigscreen. Simple explanation. – EllieK Jul 9 '18 at 13:15
  • it's less common, but you can watch a film through a service: "you can watch the new avengers through my netflix account". – worc Jul 9 '18 at 19:08
  • I would use "through" if media source is local. Say you view a film you have on disc at home or a file on your computer which you pass through to the tv because you get better visual quality there. I would use "on" if media source is far away like cable or air or satellite or internet. But I am def no english expert. – mathreadler Jul 9 '18 at 21:11
  • @mathreadler: If you're talking about which local screen to watch stuff on, I'd say "I want to watch it on my TV, not my computer monitor". Note the addition of "my" or "the" in front of TV, to talk about the physical object, rather than the programming provided by TV channels. – Peter Cordes Jul 10 '18 at 10:34
16

In virtually every language, prepositional phrases are the most difficult parts of that language for foreign speakers to learn. Native speakers grow up using idiomatic, prepositional phrases in their native language and accept them as natural and normal.

Sometimes, there is only one preposition that can be used. E.g., my cat is in physical contact with the floor, and is entirely supported by the floor, so my cat is 'on' the floor. There is no other preposition I can use that would meet those conditions.

Sometimes, the selection of a preposition is more arbitrary and difficult to explain. E.g., My brother is on holiday. But, my brother is not in physical contact with 'a holiday', nor is he entirely supported by it, so why do we use the preposition 'on'. No particular reason that I know of, it's just what we say. In French, this would be translated to, 'Mon frère est en vacances', which literally translates to, 'My brother is in holiday'. It sounds odd in English, but perfectly normal in French.

Moving on to your question, the correct way to say this in English is:

You can watch a film on TV. (Note: TV is uppercase.)

Why? Because that is the idiom we use in English. We could have said:

You can watch a film in TV.

You can watch a film through TV.

You can watch a film over TV.

You can watch a film with TV.

Any of these prepositions could have been adopted in English for using a TV to watch movies, but for some reason we selected 'ON' instead. If you use any other prepositional phrase than 'on TV' people will probably know what you mean, but they will think that your English is non-standard.

  • 1
    @dessert I assume I entered 'there' instead of 'their'. My apologies. Thanks for pointing this out. – James Jul 10 '18 at 4:02
  • I would say that the cat is to the floor as the film is to the surface of the TV screen. There is logic to how prepositions are used. It is not entirely arbitrary within the language. – Lambie Jul 10 '18 at 13:18
  • 1
    @Lambie I understand your analogy. However, I can physically pick my cat up and separate him so he is no longer contiguous with the TV, I can't do that with a movie. Also, I can say 'My cat is on the TV' but I can't say 'My cat is on TV' (unless I have sent a video to 'Funniest Home Movies'), With a movie I can say either that the movie 'is on TV' or 'is on the TV', So 'movie' is not entirely analogous to 'cat'. I completely agree that many (possibly most) prepositions are used in a logical manner, but there are also many that are not intuitive to people learning English as a second language. – James Jul 10 '18 at 14:53
  • To be on TV means you show up as an image on the TV screen. That is the logic of on. I am just saying that it sometimes takes a bit of digging to see how the prepositions work. They are not really random. So, your cat might very well be an image on the TV. In which case, it is not on top of the TV. It's like: players on the field, the surface of it; kids on the roof, on the surface. – Lambie Jul 10 '18 at 15:44
  • 1
    @Lambie I agree that's how we say 'on TV' in English. But if this was entirely logical then every language would use the same preposition - but this is not the case. Some English propositions can be deduced from logic, some cannot. My dictionary lists about two dozen different ways that'on' can be used (e.g. on fire, on drugs, on probation, on condition, mad on her, the joke's on me, etc.) not all of which can be deduced logically if you are not familiar English. If different prepositions had been used when these phrases were first coined, we would think they were perfectly logical. – James Jul 10 '18 at 16:50
10

You can consider on tv a fixed phrase. Something is on tv if it's playing on a channel somewhere, and you can tune into it. In this case it would imply watching it through broadcast or cable TV as opposed to playing a DVD.

X through Y means in some sense, you have to "pass through Y" to get to X, or that Y is some type of "gateway" to X.

So the meaning is "Y will enable you to do X if you use Y." If Y is a person, it means you have to talk to him/her to get or see X.

It's very well known that you can use a TV to watch things, so watch a film through TV sounds very awkward like you are stating something very obvious.

If the X in "You can watch X through TV" was something you don't normally use a TV to see, then it would make sense. For example:

I have a security camera. You can watch the outside through the TV.



Yep, I goofed. There is a difference between on tv and on the tv.

On TV is short for "available on a channel broadcasted by a TV station where you can watch it using a TV if you tune in to the right channel."

On the TV means "on a physical TV set." It can mean the same as the above but only rarely and it comes off as old-fashioned (more than broadcast TV is already).

Here's an updated example that takes these nuances into account:

There are nature shows on PBS. Tune into them, and you can experience nature through TV.

  • 1
    Kudos, your final example is one that I had not considered. – James Jul 9 '18 at 14:12
  • A TV screen seems kind of like a window, and you can look through a window, which might have inspired the OP. – Barmar Jul 9 '18 at 18:55
  • @Barmar You could also try to spread information or influence a group through television. – Cain Jul 9 '18 at 20:24
  • 1
    “This politician just keeps on blabbering through the TV.” is something I would say, I’m not a native speaker though. Further examples: cnet headline “Hacking the hotel through the TV” and ”Hours of car auctions blabbering through the TV” – my own and this last one are things you actually would very well expect a TV to do. Does “blabber through TV” imply inobservance, as something happening in the background without being actively catched? – dessert Jul 9 '18 at 21:54
  • 1
    "the TV" is very different from "TV". "the TV" is the physical screen, not the programming provided by broadcast or cable channels, or Netflix. – Peter Cordes Jul 10 '18 at 10:36

Your Answer

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

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.