‘Watch’ How I Make You ‘See’: What My Point Is About Verb Usage

“Hey, wanna go watch a movie?” says your friend. “Sure,” you say, “your place or mine?” “No, let’s go watch a movie at the theater.” “Oh, you mean, let’s go see a movie?” “Yeah, that’s what I said.”

But that’s not what your friend said, not one bit. They said “watch” as to reference the event of going to a movie theater and viewing a film. This is the incorrect usage of the verb “watch,” which leads me to the critical point that the usage of “watch vs. see” has been so improperly transformed recently (I have recently noticed it in the last two years) that it almost seems if no one understands the difference between these two verbs.
Let’s break it down: one of the primary uses of the verb “to see,” as according to Webster’s Online Dictionary is to “attend as a spectator, i.e. see a play.” Therefore, the participant of a given activity is going to an event that does not casually begin whenever is desired, but instead has a set start and time, such as the movie theaters, the meteor shower, a meeting with a professor, etc. By alluding to something that you are seeing it, it gives that event importance and thereby enhances the validity of the particular activity.
Webster’s on the other hand, defines the verb “to watch” as “to observe,” thus translating to either “looking on” or “looking at something, i.e. watch television.” This difference many not seem critical, but it is. If a person is going to watch something, it means that they have full control over the time, location, etc.
As to reference the first example, one cannot watch something at a theater: the movie theaters do not ask you at the ticket booth, “Hey, what time would you like us to begin the movie? This is 100 percent up to your schedule. We seek to accommodate you.”
In fact, it is quite the opposite: people must choose from a selection of times to see a movie. Meanwhile, one can turn on the TV anytime they please; it is at their complete discretion. Granted, the times that television shows begin are up to the network, but there is an increasing usage of viewing shows at one’s own time and place, via TiVo, Hulu or Netflix.
But who cares? What is the point of designating proper usage?
Well besides, just the natural pride and care that we Americans should have for our language, it is entirely reflective of the evolution of society we live in.
If I am gradually replacing the verb “to see” with “to watch,” it is explanatory of the type of culture I live in: one full of instant gratification. I can watch something whenever I please; on my laptop, on the television, on my phone, whenever and wherever I please, the visual world is at my command.
So if I am so accustomed to having the world at my fingertips, why shouldn’t I be able to “watch” a play? To “watch” a meteor shower? To go “watch” the presidential inauguration in person?
Simply, because the world does not revolve around me, my time, my schedule or my priorities.
In a highly individualistic society, there is this increase of a “me” culture, where technology is supposed to aid us in receiving instant gratification at any given time or place.
But let’s remember life doesn’t work this way; it’s not all about me, or you, or any one person. Our schedules have to sometimes fit another person’s life and choices and thus you may have to see a movie at the times designated at the theater, not watch it whenever you want.
Understandably, most people are not consciously aware of the implications that using “to watch” instead “to see” has, but that is what makes it an even more fascinating trend: people don’t even realize how individualistic our lives are when we can do almost anything at any time we want, we forget there are limitations.
So if you are a culprit of this misusage, consider changing your verb, or, unless you are completely indignant, maybe consciously observe the context in which you use the verb “to watch.”
If you are not a culprit of this, feel free to tell your friend, “No, you did not say let’s ‘see’ a movie, you said let’s ‘watch’ a movie, which has a completely different meaning.” After giving them a quick etymology lesson, as well as a new societal viewpoint, you can ‘see’ how you are helping the American English language. Huzzah!

Colleen Bromberger is a fourth-year history major. She can be reached at cbromber@uci.edu.