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What are the rules around when we use "watch" and when we use "see" for things like TV, shows and films in the house or otherwise?

For example we use "watch" for things at home like "watching TV" and "watching a film". Can we also say:

"we are going to watch a film in the cinema"

for example, or does it have to be:

"we are going to see a film in the cinema"?

How about

"we are going to watch a show tonight"

, is that correct?

Even if we always use "watch" for TV, can we use either "watch" or "see" to ask:

"Did you see Game of Thrones" / "Did you watch Game of Thrones?"

Are there any rules for this or is it a case by case basis?

4 Answers 4

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Watch is always intentional.

The core meaning of see is not intentional.

But see has other meanings, which can be intentional. One, for example, is "have a meeting with somebody"; another is "visit a place".

One meaning of see is "watch" - but this is generally used only of performances and spectacles that are intended for watching - hence see a movie and watch a movie are usually interchangeable.

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  • This doesn't explain why we say "see" a movie in a cinema, but "watch" a movie on TV at home
    – gotube
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 18:11
  • @gotube Perhaps just because that has become the conventional way of speaking. However in my answer I have suggested it may have something to do with the fact that we already use the word "see" in a different sense with the TV - we "see" it standing in the room doing nothing. And it sounds nonsensical to say "I saw the TV last night". Of course you saw it - it was standing there. But did you "watch" it? That's a different matter. We have to make no special effort to "see" as would be the case if we were to go to the cinema.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 18:00
  • @WS2 I like your theory a lot. I'd never thought of it that way, and it may well have contributed to the difference. My take is that now it's just convention, whatever the original reason was for the divide.
    – gotube
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 19:00
  • The answer given by @Jay below is also interesting -not sure why someone downvoted him. As he says "watch" is a deliberate action, while "see" is usually unintentional. The surprising thing is perhaps the double sense of "see" and that we talk of "going to see a film" - and use the verb in a more positive sense than usual.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 19:33
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You seem to have understood the position perfectly. Yes, for things at home, where we can already see a blank television screen - we do something a bit more active and decide to watch it.

But if we cannot, when we are speaking, see the surroundings where it is to take place we go and see a film, or see a football match.

Once there, instead of talking to the person in the next seat, when the programme starts we give our attention and watch.

Watch has a more immediate and specific sense than see. We see the countryside around us - there is no need to watch as it is constantly there, and we cannot help seeing it. But we watch the cows being rounded up for milking.

There is a third alternative - look. We often see without necessarily looking, but we can also look but not see anything.

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"Watch" indicates a deliberate action. "See" is generally used when it is unintentional or outside your control. Like you might say, "I was surprised to see Bob at the party", but it wouldn't make sense to say, "I was surprised to watch Bob at the party." Conversely, you can say, "I carefully watched the suspect through binoculars", but you wouldn't say, "I carefully saw the suspect through binoculars."

Things enter a gray area when you deliberately watch something but don't control what you see. Note how I just used the two words. "I watched the suspect enter the building, and I saw him speak to Mr Jones."

TV and movies can get into a gray area because you may not be making deliberate choices. Like we'd normally say, "I watch X every week because it's a great TV show." You would be unlikely to say "I see X every week because it's a great TV show." But you might say, "I see X every week because my son always puts it on after dinner." Note in that case you are not deliberately choosing it, someone else is.

That said, people sometimes use "see" for TV shows and movies when the viewing is intentional. "I went to the theater to see the latest superhero movie" is just as likely as "I went to the theater to watch ..."

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There's no logical rule to determine which verb we use for TV shows and movies despite what the other answers say. There's just rules of convention.

We usually watch TV shows and movies on TV. You might hear someone say they saw a movie or a show, even if it was on TV at home, but it's less common.

We see movies in cinemas. I don't think anyone says "watch" for a movie in a cinema.

So if I ask my roommate, "Do you want to watch a movie?", she understands I mean on TV at home.

And if I say, "Do you want to see a movie?", she'll first think I mean in a cinema, but as that's an odd thing for me to want to do and it's possible I mean at home, she'll probably ask what I mean.

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  • I disagree, both with 'no logical rule' as intent does make a difference and with the movie bit, though it depends on context. Roomate1: What do ya wanna do today? Rm2: We could go into town and watch a movie ...
    – mcalex
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 7:15
  • @mcalex What is the logic behind "see a movie" normally meaning "in a cinema" but "watch a movie" normally being at home?
    – gotube
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 18:09

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