Not only the OALD, but many dictionaries I checked broadly say only one thing about the verb 'observe'.

to watch/study/notice (don't go literally, this is the broad meaning I could extract from the meanings)

However, the context is living things in most of the cases. I'm a content writer and often use observe for non-living things. Say..

The mobile industry observed 325% growth (hypothetical) in a past few years

I know that such a construction for non-living things is acceptable because, after all, industries, companies etc. are formed by humans, living beings, but then, I read somewhere in an Indian newspaper.

Thursday observed a huge crowd gathered outside the headquarters of X

While I was still reluctant to use it for industry and things the like, Days observing something raises a question in my mind. And I'm here, on this reliable platform! :)

Is it okay across the globe or another instance of Indian English?

  • 2
    You can use the word saw in that context (Thursday saw a huge crowd gathered outside the headquarters; the industry saw a 300% growth, etc.), but I don't believe synonyms of see (such as observe) are used in this context. I'll be interested to see if anyone can find any notable, credible exceptions. As for using see, that is meanings #8 & #10 in Collins, or meanings #8 & #9 in Macmillan.
    – J.R.
    Nov 21, 2014 at 11:19
  • @J.R. True. See still makes sense but observes for inanimate objects sounds a bit different because 'observe' requires a keen intellect.
    – Maulik V
    Nov 21, 2014 at 11:23
  • I don't think that's quite right; I don't think "intellect" has anything to do with it. I think it's more a matter of how the words have evolved and are used. Do you follow me? (Notice how it would be wrong to ask, "Do you trail me?" because, even though follow and trail are synonyms in many contexts, they can't be used interchangeably here.)
    – J.R.
    Nov 21, 2014 at 11:38
  • 1
    I think saw and observe can be used with the same meaning. That said, I think the BrE and AmE standard idiom is Thursday saw, not observed. Then again, idioms do vary between (and within!) dialects.
    – oerkelens
    Nov 21, 2014 at 12:17
  • 2
    It is not standard across the globe. And I've no idea if Thursday observed is standard in InE, or if the author just assumed he/she could substitute observed for saw.
    – user6951
    Nov 21, 2014 at 16:17

3 Answers 3


We often ascribe animate behavior to inanimate objects. From "Britain decided to join the EU" to "The dishwasher is running" (when it's really sitting there in one place, and it has no legs) to "The car struggled to make it through the snow" to "Computers hate me", etc, etc. They're analogies or metaphors.

Sometimes it's using the name of an organization or a place as a shorthand reference to the people who make up that organization or live in that place. Of course "Britain" can't "decide" anything, if by "Britain" we mean the physical islands with rocks and trees and so on. But any rational person hearing such a sentence understands that you mean "the people who live in Britain" or "the government of Britain" or whoever the applicable decision-makers are.

Sometimes it's simply an effort to say something without a big long explanation by using words that we're all familiar with to describe a new or relatively new thing, or an abstract idea. Sure, I could say, "The dishwasher contains a motor, and that motor has a rotor which is travelling in a circular path around a central stator under the influence of a magnetic field generated when electricity ..." etc. But we all know what you mean if you just say "it's running".

Sometimes it's deliberately picturesque. Like when someone says that a machine hates him, of course he means that he is having difficulty mastering its proper operation, and/or that it is malfunctioning, etc. But it's more fun to personify the machine as an intelligent being that hates him and is deliberately doing these things to cause him trouble.

So "Thursday observed ..." Obviously the writer means that people observed whatever on Thursday. As others have noted, it's quite common to say "Thursday saw ..." I don't recall hearing "Thursday observed ..." before, but it's not a big stretch.

  • 1
    I agree with your first paragraph, with one exception: The dishwasher is running. The verb run has several meanings; only a few of them require moving legs. Politicians run for office, thoughts run through our brains, refrigerators run day and night, water runs when we turn the faucet on, and rivers run downstream. That said, if you changed your example to something like, "The dishwasher is screaming" (when it's making a loud noise), I think that might be a better example of "ascribing animate behavior to inanimate objects."
    – J.R.
    Nov 21, 2014 at 22:49
  • @j.r. Well, maybe I should have checked the history of the meaning of "run" before writing that. But I suspect that "run" came to be used to describe a machine operating by such a personification, but it's now become such common use that we rarely notice.
    – Jay
    Nov 24, 2014 at 14:19
  • I was just about to make the same objection as @J.R. The dishwasher is running simply means that the dishwasher is operating, which isn't a behaviour tied to animate beings at all. Dec 21, 2014 at 21:18
  • @starsplusplus You could say that about any metaphor. "At the last minute he chickened out" is saying that he failed to follow through on what he said he was going to do, and has nothing to do with poultry, etc.
    – Jay
    Dec 29, 2014 at 14:52

One of the meanings of SEE in BrE is

to be the time or place when something happens:

This summer has seen the end of water restrictions in the area thanks to a new reservoir.


I have been unable to find any examples of OBSERVE used in this way. The sentences in the original post would be unnatural in BrE.

  • Idiomatically, observe throws some people off, indeed. But it is good to note that this has more to do with the choice of verb than with the idea that observation (whether generalized or specified as see) is uniquely reserved for animate entities.
    – oerkelens
    Nov 21, 2014 at 12:22
  • 1
    Its also unnatural in AmE. Since one example in the OP is from an Indian newspaper, it is that source I would be wary of.
    – user6951
    Nov 21, 2014 at 16:15

Firstly, that's a journalism thing - journalists tend to twist language into knots and change the use as they see fit: I wouldn't necessarily take the writing of a journalist as a reflection of "technically correct" use of the English Language.**

To this exact case: their intended usage is not that "Thursday" (the inanimate day) observed anything, it's really that "People observed...on Thursday". It's a shorthand way of stating the situation on Thursday, usually as opposed to another day previously mentioned. The assumption is that as the information is being reported first hand, we already know who is doing the observing.

Think of it as "We (the journalists/public watching) observed that, on Thursday, there was a huge crowd gathered outside the headquarters of x"

I wouldn't say it's a technically correct use of the language, but it's fairly widely understood and wouldn't necessarily be remarked upon.

** That's not to say journalists consistently write bad English, just that you may come across a few phrases such as this one which move away from linguistic norms. They are usually perfectly valid in natural use, but may not be good examples for learning purposes

  • 4
    RE: "journalists tend to twist language into knots and change the use as they see fit: don't take the writing of a journalist as a reflection of the English Language" – I disagree with your advice and your conclusion. While some journalists may indeed "twist" very poorly, others do it quite adroitly, and author some exemplary English. (The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic are two examples where the English is generally extraordinarily good.) Had you said, "Some journalists butcher the language; you need to be careful," I might agree, but you've thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
    – J.R.
    Nov 21, 2014 at 11:32
  • I think you're perhaps taking it a little too seriously. I'm just pointing out that journalists (sometimes deliberately, sometimes carelessly) often use non-standard English - as a learner, it's usually best not to take journalistic writing as definitive or exemplary of 'proper' English, if it seems to disagree with other use (there again, the other use may be wrong... Or neither, or both)
    – Jon Story
    Nov 21, 2014 at 11:45
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    I'm not calling it an error in terms of "this is clearly nonsense" - merely that when you are deliberately talking about English from a learner's point of view, such writing should be taken as stylistic writing, and not as a guide to how to communicate as an English speaker. You'd never see "Thursday observed" outside of a newspaper or similar.
    – Jon Story
    Nov 21, 2014 at 12:24
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    @Jon - I didn't mean to be nit-picky; let me explain my comment. You made a broad statement – Don't use journalistic writing as good, exemplary English – and one of our highest-rep users praised that as "wonderful." I'm worried about the scores of learners who come by and read your answer. For the next several months, they may be inclined to dismiss any unusual wording in a news article as "just journalists being journalists," until one day they realize that some of this non-standard usage is not merely acceptable, it's downright brilliant. Then they might conclude, "Hmm, I can't trust ELL."
    – J.R.
    Nov 21, 2014 at 13:57
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    I'm not normally one to rush to the defense of journalists, but I think it's simplistic to say "journalists tend to use bad English". Some do and some don't. Some people who are not journalists use bad English and some don't. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if the English in news reports is worse than most published sources, because they tend to be written on a shorter deadline, and so have less time for editing and review. I'd expect a book to go through several proof-readings before publication, but a news story, maybe one quick one.
    – Jay
    Nov 21, 2014 at 14:31

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