Why are these different?

  • We heard the news on the radio.
  • We watched the news on television.

In this book, the author says we must use television without the. Why? It makes me crazy. Is there a valid reason?

  • It may have something to do with prosody (stress patterns) or word length… just speculating. – ShreevatsaR Dec 26 '10 at 5:35
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    Hmm yes, could be... this is actually a matter that deserves some research, in other languages too. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Dec 29 '10 at 5:28
  • My maternal grandparents spoke French first and English much later; every night before bedtime they would "look at the television." – MT_Head Jun 7 '11 at 7:52
  • @MT_Head It's quite interesting how a fluent speaker saying she was "looking at the television" has quite a different meaning than saying she was "watching television". – Jim MacKenzie Oct 26 '17 at 18:00

These are my assumptions based on the the Longman Dictionary entry for 'television'and the examples cited there. According to this entry,

The word television can refer to a) the equipment as well as b) the programmes broadcast on television.

From the examples cites there, I understand that we use the definite article when we are referring to the device.

Lucy turned on the television to watch the evening news.

On the other hand, it looks like we can omit the definite article if we are referring to the programmes.

In the evenings I like to relax and watch television.

The third entry on the dictionary is:

on (the) television:broadcast or being broadcast on television:

What's on (the) television tonight?

Probably, in this type of usage with the preposition, it is fine to omit or use the definite article.

  • The key thing to understand from the dictionary entry is that the first definition (the equipment) is countable while the second (the content) is uncountable. We can't use the definite article with countable nouns, but we can with countable nouns. – user1579 Jun 28 '11 at 14:37
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    Erm, the first occurrence of "countable" in that last sentence was meant to say "uncountable". Sorry, I don't know what came over me. – user1579 Jun 28 '11 at 16:06
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    I agree- the key is that 'the device' is countable and will definitely require an article if it is in the singular form. With uncountable nouns, however, it is not that the definite article cannot be used at all-it is optional. – Manjima Jun 29 '11 at 5:17
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    The interesting thing is you can't do this with radio. You listen *to the* radio as opposed to listen radio. Is this possibly due to changing conventions between when radio and TV became common? Or is it just due to to the capriciousness of the language? – neil Nov 27 '12 at 15:22

I have thought about this for a long time, but I am afraid I can think of no reason why it is as it is. This is just idiom; you need to learn it without any overarching rule, alas.

There are several ways in English to denote that you are talking about something in general rather than a specific instance:

  • Man has been on the moon. Love is banal. Pottery is an important technology. (No article)
  • The wheel is a great invention. The most poisonous spider in Europe is the Black Widow. (Definite article)
  • A jaguar would never eat an elephant. (Indefinite article)
  • Penguins hate polar bears. (No article, plural)
  • The Assyrians do not take prisoners. (Definite article, plural)

In some cases you could use several ways; not all are possible in each case.


I've known television not to include the definite article "the", while radio attracts the definite article "the".

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    Can you elaborate? – JJJ Apr 30 '19 at 18:14

Possibly because television is an improper naming of the device. The piece of equipment is called a televisor. The televisor is how you watch television. We heard the news on the televisor. We heard the news on radio waves.

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    What do you mean? Television is the right word; it predates televisor by decades. And televisor was used in the 30s, but is now marked as "historical" in the OED. – Laurel Oct 26 '17 at 18:00

The author has a big ego.

There is certainly nothing wrong with "we watched the news on the television" neither in usage nor in grammar.

There is a huge volume of ridiculous advice out there by experts who should know better.

see: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2813

see: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=5

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    comment to the editor: I rolled it back because the so-called inflammatory nature is crucial to my point. Your edits completely change the intent and viewpoint. Don't like the sentiment? Comment, don't RETCON. – horatio Jun 29 '11 at 19:21

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