I have a question about the verb phrase "click on" here:

After the videotape clicks on, the 53-year-old calmly tells investigators how he choked 6-year-old Etan Patz in the basement of a Manhattan convenience store on May 25, 1979. He describes putting the boy, who was still alive, into a plastic bag, then putting the bag inside a box and dumping it nearby.

How does a "videotape click on"? I do understand a door "clicks shut" though. Did the writer mean "after the videotape player was clicked on"?

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    At the very least, it's an "abnormal" usage. Just ignore it and don't copy it. – FumbleFingers Sep 16 '14 at 21:42
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    I believe the author is attempting to pull the reader into the scene by including an audio cue. It's effectively a poetic or mood setting way to say "The Machine recording the video made a click when it started". – Tory Sep 16 '14 at 22:20
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    Of course not! The writer means, "after the videotape recorder was clicked on." – J.R. Sep 17 '14 at 0:03
  • @FumbleFingers Does that mean, in this spirit of "abnormal" usage, I could write something like "the machine clicks to life" or "the machine buzzes on"? – meatie Sep 18 '14 at 18:54
  • @meatie: I wouldn't bother with any of that intial "padding" - it communicates nothing of consequence, and so far as I'm concerned all it does is introduce an element of ambiguity (before posting this comment I had to check the link carefully to satisfy myself that it wasn't about something the accused said "live" in court after they started playing the tape in court). Take note of magistermurphy's excellent answer, but don't bother thinking about "better" ways to phrase it. What it "says" isn't worth saying anyway. – FumbleFingers Sep 18 '14 at 20:34

@FumbleFingers is right. The writer just means "After the video tape starts" but wants it to sound different, probably because the scene is meant to be scary or mysterious. Sometimes, we talk about electronics and machines as though they're the subject, when logically they're not, like "My car won't start" when we mean "I can't start my car."

The passage you quote is like that. Sometimes, in recordings, especially if they were never edited, you can hear a clicking sound at the beginning or end of the recording. "After the videotape clicks on," is like "after the TV turned on," but specifies its first sound.

But this phrase is pretty unusual. I wouldn't use it, unless you start writing mystery novels with lots of ominous clicking sounds.

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    Does that mean, in this spirit of "abnormal" usage, I could write something like "the machine clicks to life" or "the machine buzzes on"? – meatie Sep 18 '14 at 18:56

If you say "the videotape clicked on" it suggests some kind of autonomy or separation, by making the videotape seem like an agent of action.

This separation could be extreme to the point that it is actually suggesting that "the videotape clicked on (by itself)" -- perhaps because of a timer. That would give it some of the ominous overtones mentioned as being in a mystery or horror novel, as if something spooky has just happened. But you could also say "He pressed the remote button and the videotape clicked on."; which puts a distance between the remote and the videotape--as if "clicking on" was a choice the tape was making.

"Clicking" here can suggest a noise is made by the machine itself, and certainly mechanical tapes had a THUNK as the playhead engaged. Kids today will not be familiar with that--though perhaps they would know the "whirr" of a DVD spinning up. Next decade, maybe that sound will not be familiar either. :-)

But as @magistermurphy says, the "click" could merely refer to the moment of discontinuity between being off and then on. In fact--even if something had no sound but went from a dark screen to a moving image you could be understood in saying it had "clicked on".

A phrase like "could you click on the telly for me?" sounds a bit like something an old British person might say, along with the humorous "I'll knock you up in the morning.". It's colorful if you want to play with language, but not the best way to phrase things if you're trying to communicate clearly.

  • Does that mean, in this spirit of "abnormal" usage, I could write something like "the machine clicks to life" or "the machine buzzes on"? – meatie Sep 18 '14 at 18:55
  • @meatie More likely used in the past tense - "the machine clicked to life" or "the machine buzzed on". Sure, you could say that. It's a literary use, colorful language, will likely confuse non-native speakers (as you've noted...) – HostileFork says dont trust SE Sep 19 '14 at 2:24

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