"He was watching the television when I called on him."

When I said this sentence to one of my friends (an English teacher) he corrected me saying that the definite article (the) should be omitted. Still, I can't understand why. ? Actually similar question has been asked earlier but the answers were so ambiguous. So I put complete sentence.

  • The question has already been asked, I should have checked before answering but at least the answers here are not photocopies of the older ones.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 14:40
  • @todd-wilcox The level of formality is another important variable. In formal writing, American authors often omit the definite article. The first example of zero article usage at the end of my post is from an American author. The authors of this text are also American. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 15:04
  • 1
    As a native AmE speaker (Nebraska), I'm baffled by @ToddWilcox's comment. I would have said that "watching the television" sounded weird to an American ear. Admittedly, using the full word television is a bit stuffy anyway, but I would almost always say it without the definite article. Putting the in there seems to emphasize that they were staring at the screen itself, regardless of any program that may or may not have been playing. Conjures an image like this one.
    – spoko
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:00
  • Can we be clear, you knocked on his door, prolly unexpectedly? You didn’t phone him; nor arrive by arrangement? Then there’s no difference at all among “television…” or “the television…” or “TV” or “the TV” or “(the) telly” and your friend was trying to make a rule out of something which is in fact, and always will be a matter of personal choice. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:04
  • 5
    I don't know why, but to my ears "watching television" means watching the content of a transmitted programme, while "watching the television" means keeping an eye on the TV monitor to make sure no-one is stealing it. That is I hear "television" as referring to the broadcast information, and "the television" as referring to the electronic device. Commented May 1, 2018 at 8:11

4 Answers 4


Both versions are acceptable.

If your friend was insisting that you must (as opposed to may) drop the article, then your friend was simply mistaken.

Having said that..

  1. Watching the television is more likely in informal than in formal contexts.

  2. From discussions on this page and from perusing google books, it seems there may be some difference at least in informal usage between American and British English, where American informal usage may favor the version with the definite article, whereas the British usage may favor the version without the definite article in both formal and informal contexts. In fact, there could even be regional differences within the US. (This is how things seem to me at the moment. I admit I don't have a reputable source to back these particular claims up.)

However, the two remarks above are only about tendencies. In no sense and in no context is the version with the definite article 'wrong' or 'unacceptable' or 'bad English'. Indeed, both versions are sometimes found in the same source, sometimes just a few sentences apart (see the examples from published literature at the end of this post).

The discussion below is about some other words as well, not just (the) television. This puts the issues in context and you may start to see some regularities better.

Here is the relevant section of Collins COBUILD English Guides: Articles (pp. 40-42):

6.2 Media and communications

You can refer to systems of mass communication and the media by using a noun with the definite article (or sometimes by using a noun without an article). In this way you can distinguish them from actual objects; 'a radio' will always be a particular object, but 'the radio' could refer to a system, as in this example.

We gather facts and attitudes from the press, the television and the radio.

Words in this category are:

(the) television   the box          the telephone      the press      the post (Br)
(the) telly            (the) radio    the phone             the paper     the mail (Am)
(the) TV               the news       the newspapers   the papers

When referring to television as a form of entertainment or communication, you can use the definite article (which tends to be informal) or no article.

They go on the television and smoke drugs in front of the viewers.

He isn't as serious as he is on television.

The abbreviations, 'TV' and 'telly' can be used in the same way, although 'TV' tends to occur without an article in this sense. 'Telly' is an informal alternative; another informal expression is 'the box' (always with the).

I don't want to be seen on the telly.
...anyone whose face appears regularly in newspapers and on TV
...a constant background of telly or radio.

If someone says 'on the television' it can mean two things: 'physically on' (There's a photo of him on the television'), or 'being broadcast' ('There's a good programme on the television tonight'). If you say 'on television', only the second meaning is possible. (See section 6.4 for more information on 'television'.)

You can refer to radio as a means of communication with either the definite article or no article.

I just heard her speaking on the radio.
He had already become a climbing spokesman on radio.

When using 'telephone' or 'phone' to refer to a means of communication, you use the definite article.

A large part of Linda's day is spent on the telephone.
Haig and Nixon are regularly on the phone with each other.

Here we are not thinking of one particular telephone; we are more interested in the form of communication.

There are also the expressions 'by telephone' and 'by phone' in which 'telephone' and 'phone' refer to the system of communication, although there is no article.

...an attempt to reach her at the camp by telephone.

You speak of 'the newspapers' or 'the papers' when referring to newspapers as a form of media. The meaning is similar to 'the press'.

The papers are saying how unusual it is.
How would it look in the papers?

Sometimes 'the paper' is also used to mean newspapers generally, not one particular newspaper.

This is what we read in the paper.

When you use 'post' (American equivalent 'mail') to refer to a system of communication, you use the definite article.

One morning there arrived through the post an amazing letter.

However, there is also the expression 'by post' which refers to the service.

He acquired the necessary reference books by post.

Another relevant section is on p. 43:

6.4 Forms of entertainment

When you are talking about someone going to enjoy a form of entertainment you use the definite article with the word for the form of entertainment. Words like this are: 'cinema' (Am 'movies'), 'theatre', 'opera', 'ballet'.

Let's go to the movies.
You have seen things. You have been to the opera, the ballet, the theatre.

Here we are not thinking of a particular performance of an opera or ballet, or a particular theatre building, but just of the form of entertainment.

'Cinema', 'theatre', 'opera', and 'ballet', as well as 'dance', 'film', and 'television', can be used as uncount nouns without an article to refer to the art form.

...supreme artists of dance and theatre.
...a very fine piece of cinema.
Television can be an art medium.

ComGEL (pp. 269-270) refers to this use of the definite article as sporadic reference:

(f) Sporadic reference

5.33 The is sometimes used in reference to an institution of human society. For example, in [1] there are two possible interpretations of the theatre:

My sister goes to the theatre every month.      [1]

By situational reference, it may mean a particular theatre, say the Criterion Theatre, which my sister attends regularly. But a more likely meaning is that my sister does not necessarily confine her theatre-going to one building: the theatre refers, rather, to the theatre as an institution, so that it would be inappropriate to ask, in response to [1]: Which theatre? We call this the SPORADIC use of the, because reference is made to an institution which may be observed recurrently at various places and times.

There is a similar use of the news, the radio, the television, the paper(s), the press, etc, referring to aspects of mass communication:

Did you hear the ten o'clock news?
What's in the paper(s)/on the radio/on (the) TV this evening?

But with television or TV, there is also the possibility that the article will be omitted (cf 5.45).

The concept of sporadic reference also extends to expressions referring to modern transport and communication, such as the bus, the train, the post (esp BrE), the mail (esp AmE), the telephone:

Mary took the bus/the train to London. OR: a bus/a train
He promised that the letters would be in the post/the mail this evening.

In a temporal rather than spatial sense, sporadic reference may even be taken to apply to the optional use of the before words referring to seasons (eg: the winter, cf 5.47), and to festivals, etc (the New Year, cf 5.67).


[a] The sporadic use of the is in certain instances close to the generic use of the. Compare the use of the theatre in [1] above with the generic sense of the theatre ['drama as an art form'] in [2l:

She's an expert on (the) (Elizabethan) theatre.          [2l
Similarly: the novel, the ballad, (the) drama.

[b] The contrast between situational and sporadic use is manifest in this pair of examples:

There's a vase of on the television (set)/*television.
There's an interesting play on (the) television.

And on pp. 277-278:

Noun phrases with sporadic reference

5.43 We have already mentioned (cf 5.33) the use of the in noun phrases with 'sporadic' definite reference, as in the radio, the theatre. In other cases, however, the sporadic use has become so institutionalized that the article is not used. We distinguish, under this heading, a number of different categories of zero article usage which are 'frozen' as part of idiomatic usage.

(a) Some 'institutions' of human life and society

5.44 Certain nouns have the zero article, especially as complement of at, in, and on in quasi-locative phrases: thus someone may be in church, but not *in library. We call them 'quasi-locative' because, although they appear to have locative meaning, their function is rather more abstract (cf: the theatre, 5.33). In such contexts, nouns such as college, church, etc do not refer to actual buildings or places, but to the institutions associated with them: to be in prison, for example, is to be a prisoner, not a casual visitor; to go to sea is to follow the occupation of a sailor; see the left-hand column below. In the right-hand column we illustrate the same nouns as used with the in situational or cataphoric reference:


               town                                  The town/the city is very old.
               bed                                     lie down on the bed
be in      hospital                             redecorate the hospital
go to      prison, jail                       walk around the prison/the jail
               class (esp AmE)              The class works hard.

be at      school                                 visit the school
go to      sea                                       look out towards the sea

be in/be at church                          admire the church
go to college                                     the gates of the college


[a] Other related phrases are the following, some of which show variation in the use of article:

get out of bed
during (the) break/recess
be in/return to camp
live on/off (the) campus
be on/off (the) stage
at (the) court [royal palace]; in (the) court [law court]; The case was settled out of court; take someone to court
come/go/leave home; be (at) home; feel at home

With university, the article is optional in BrE in the expressions be at/go to (the) university, whereas AmE requires the definite article (as also with hospital in AmE: 'He's in the hospital.').

[b] The article is sometimes left out also when the reference is to the building, not the institution:

I walked straight back into/to school.
She's at church, arranging flowers.

In AmE, and increasingly in BrE, the article is often omitted in expressions like:

in the center of town, the business part of town.

(b) Means of transport and communication

5.45 This type is confined to zero article following by; but the same nouns can be used elsewhere with 'sporadic' the (cf 5.33):

                           bicycle                  take the bicycle
travel                bus                         be on the bus
leave      by       car                         prefer the car
come                 boat                       choose the boat
go                      train                      take a/the train
                           plane                     be on the plane

                                                                  telephone, telex
communicate/communication by     post (esp BrE)
                                                                  mail (esp AmE)


         a talk on the radio
         Jill is on the telephone.
         put a letter in the post
         send it through the mail
         The satellite is replacing cable TV.

Also: by hand

Just as further evidence that what is written above is correct, note that it is easy to find examples of both watching television and watching the television in published literature:

This is to pose our activity in our sitting-rooms, watching the television, as an active process of decoding or interpretation. (source; note that this appears on the same page in the same source as the first example of watching television, below)
GRANDPA: (Watching the television.) (source)
The socio-economically deprived spend a disproportionate time watching the television, an indoor activity. (source)
She just sat watching the television. (source)

It is often assumed (certainly by the broadcasters) that watching television is something done by the family together at home. (source)
We may keep watching television, but the new technologies involve new rituals of use. (source)
So viewers are already accustomed to watching television in nontraditional ways. (source)
Professor Sigman expresses concerns about the amount of time spent watching television. (source)

  • The newest citation? The one that starts with "The socio-economically" Has this line immediately below it "The poorest spend around 11 hours a week more than the richest watching TV" Admit it, the instances where the definite article is omitted when we refer to watching television programmes is far greater than those with. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 16:54
  • 1
    "They go on the television and smoke drugs in front of the viewers." That does not sound right to my ears. It's reminiscent of "I went on the google and searched the tubes" -- it sounds like an eye-rolling teenager making fun of unsavvy adults. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 17:06
  • 9
    As a USA-based person, I actually disagree with Todd's comment. It actually sounds odd (to me) to hear "watching the television". That seems to focus on the device rather than the content, as @Mari-LouA notes above. "watching television" implies that you're watching a program. "watching the television" doesn't necessarily imply the same thing. Again, IMHO. On the other hand, it's not wrong necessarily either. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 19:13
  • 6
    Another American here; in agreement with @GalacticCowboy. "Watching television" has a different meaning (at least here in the US) than "Watching the television". The former means you're viewing a TV program(me). The latter means you're observing the television receiver itself (perhaps it's on fire). Not often used. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 23:57
  • 1
    Watching the television means looking at the actual device, not what is showing on television to me. And I am not American.
    – Simd
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 6:46

I prefer saying

I'm watching [a programme/film/movie on] TV
I'm watching television

If you are watching the TV it sounds like the television set (now that's an oldie) is being active and is doing something. It's possible... but unlikely.

We normally watch something that is in movement, that requires our attention.

Authoritative source, English Oxford dictionaries, I was prepared to concede victory if I saw it had any instances where the definite article was used, instead there is not one example. Interesting!

  • ‘Dan was sitting on the settee watching television
  • ‘Norman was on television yesterday’
  • ‘I thought very little of it … as I walked through the house and lay down on the sofa to watch television.’
  • ‘She lay on her mother's sofa, watching television and eating chocolates, ….’
  • ‘I'm home today, just lying here, watching daytime television and surfing.’
  • ‘You can't keep sitting on the sofa all day, watching daytime television and eating chocolate chip cookies.’
  • ‘I'm not cut out to spend evenings on the sofa watching television and going to bed early.’
  • ‘Before the interview, Depp had been watching cable television in the next room.’
  • Most television, particularly network programs, has gone from vast wasteland to empty universe.’
  • ‘Folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are watching daytime television.’
  • Don't you think that there's a difference here between TV and television? I would say that the definite article is far less likely in front of TV than in front of television. The passage from Collins COBUILD I cited in my post would also seem to say that. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 14:28
  • I watch the BBC but I don't watch ITV ... definite articles are eccentric little things.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 14:34
  • Haha, that they are... Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 14:35
  • 6
    "The" would also be used used if you were keeping watch or guarding it. For example, carrying one from your car to your apartment and you leave someone else with it for a few minutes, "Watch the television, I'll be right back."
    – sirjonsnow
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 15:14
  • 1
    @linguisticturn I think sirjonsnow is saying that the definite article is more common when we consider the television as a device, as a piece of electronic equipment. The me "watching" the TV move around the house, sort of thing.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 15:25

The two different phrases have subtly different meanings. Both may be correct, depending on what meaning you want to communicate.

  • The form watching television refers to the uncountable noun “television”, which implies one is referring to the (uncountable and, in principle, unending) stream of content that the medium of television provides.

  • The form watching the television refers to “the television”, a singular device sitting in the room, which implies one is engaged with that specific device and giving it attention, as distinct from other televisions in other places.

Yes, these both encompass pretty much the same behaviour. But they communicate a different emphasis in each case. Choose accordingly.

(Inspired by a comment from @supercat)


The most common way an American would say that is;

"When I called him, he was watching TV."

Or to a lesser degree;

"He was watching TV when I called."

A TV was ordered, and needs to be picked up at "K-Mart";

"You need to go to K-Mart and pick up the TV."


"Could you go to K-Mart and pick up the TV for me?"

If the television (brand/model) had not been picked-out yet, you would say, "a TV", instead of "the TV."

"Hey kids! Stop jumping around near the TV. Someone's going to fall and get hurt!"

"Where do you want the TV, in this corner, or that one?"

"Do you want to watch TV?"

"Yes Officer, someone broke in (my house/apartment) and took my television"

"Could you put these flowers on top of the TV?"

"Where did you put the flowers?" "They're on the TV"

..."They're right next to the TV."

"where's my TV?"

If someone was in the other room, they might say "television" for clarity.

  • Note that the OP has called on him, which in this context means paid him a visit or dropped in on him (see e.g. here). Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:46
  • It would be interesting if you could comment on the particular sentence the OP is talking about, which in American idiom would be: He was watching the television when I dropped in on him. Concentrate on the definite article in front of television. Do you think this is an acceptable English sentence as written, or do you think that we must drop the definite article to make it acceptable? Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:51
  • @linguisticturn: I would interpret the sentence with the article as having a different meaning from the one without. The form with the article would be correct if, e.g. "he" had just repaired the television set, plugged it in, and turned it on, and he was watching it to observe whether it would start smoking or otherwise malfunction when I dropped in on him. If, however, his focus was on the programming rather than on the behavior of the set, then the article should be omitted.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 23:51

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