Why are you "in" the movies, but "on" TV?
July 25, 2006 6:56 PM   Subscribe

Why are you "in" the movies, but "on" TV?
posted by mikemonteiro to Writing & Language (29 answers total)
This will sound like a flippant answer, but it might actually be why..... a TV is too small to be inside. A movie screen is quite large, so the actors could really be 'in' the screen.

Just a thought.
posted by Malor at 7:00 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

You are on screen in the movies, and if you are on TV, it's likely because you are in the news, in a documentary, or what have you.

So it is actually completely internally consistent, see?
posted by Meatbomb at 7:04 PM on July 25, 2006

I think the "on" for telly is the same as the "at" for movies. For example: "I saw him in 'The Office' on (the) TV" is similar to "I saw him in "Pirates of the Carribean' at the movies". You're in a program on TV, you're in a film at the movies.

/Australian common usage.
posted by bunglin jones at 7:10 PM on July 25, 2006

Well, you're in a TV show instead of being on it. But you are on the radio and you're on a radio show, not in it, so I think it's just arbitrary.

This is typical for prepositions! Some relatively basic physical relationships have straight up semantic meaning, but most of the ways we use prepositions are not these simple concrete relationships, and which preposition means what is fairly arbitrary. That is, abstract preposition use is pretty much idiomatic.

This is why using the wrong preposition is such a common non-native-speaker mistake; there's no rules or sense to it.
posted by aubilenon at 7:10 PM on July 25, 2006

or what Meatbomb said.
posted by bunglin jones at 7:10 PM on July 25, 2006

btw: nice tags.
posted by aubilenon at 7:11 PM on July 25, 2006

I wonder if it's because we say "What's on TV tonight?" and of course "As Seen On TV!" and so forth.

When someone is "In the movies" it sort of implies that they are "in" the business of the film industry. You will also sometimes hear "in TV" when the industry itself is meant.

Films came first, so "in film" became common parlance, and it may have come from theater as in "Starring in..."? While TV was more like radio, and you'd always say "What's on the radio now"...

I don't really know, but that's what I'd guess.
posted by Rubber Soul at 7:12 PM on July 25, 2006

It's just the way those particular idioms worked out.
posted by oddman at 7:15 PM on July 25, 2006

The distinction is between things that are transmitted and things that you go to see.

Hence a person is in a play, and in a movie, but on the radio, on the television, and even on the internet.

Further, there is another distinction between whether a person is appearing in a medium, or in a show in the medium. You are on television, but in a show, just as you are in a play.

Prepositions are tricky wee things though and it may just be historical accident.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:17 PM on July 25, 2006

Guys, it isn't arbitrary. You are IN (a genre of show) that is broadcast ON a transmission channel.

He's IN a soap opera ON TV.
He's IN a comedy series ON the radio.
He's IN a feature length film ON the big screen, also soon to be ON DVD.
He's IN a romantic comedy ON pay-per-view.

She acts IN movies/serials/docudramas.
I love to watch her ON TV/the Internet/the silver screen/the stage.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:21 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

It may be revealed in McLuhan's well known adage "the medium is the message." He said when you go to the movies, you are in the movie - immersed, you become so wholly engaged as to lose yourself. When you watch TV, you are watching TV. Which is to say you retain awareness of the television and the program as other. These demarcations in the movies and on TV were developed long before Marshal showed, up, but I think it may be rooted in the subconscious experiential level, and from there the common usage developed, not intentionally but certainly descriptively.
posted by leslie at 7:24 PM on July 25, 2006 [3 favorites]

I agree with Rubber Soul. "The movies" is an industry. "TV" (in your usage) is an object. If you're talking about the movie equivalent in object terms, then as Meatbomb points out, you're "on the silver screen" where the silver screen is an object that your image is temorarily instantiated on. See also, "on film."

Just as an aside, there's an example of the ambiguity of being "in" an industry that is also an object in the movie Jaws, where Mrs. Brody says to Hooper, "I hear you're in sharks."
posted by Jeff Howard at 7:29 PM on July 25, 2006

Meatbomb that makesa lot of sense, but why then are people guests on a show (say Letterman)?
posted by oddman at 7:29 PM on July 25, 2006

Meatbomb has it. TV is a medium, a TV show is an item on that medium. So you're on TV, but in a TV show.

With regards to "I was on Letterman".. it's because you're shortcutting "I was on Letterman's show", no? If you were Michael J. Fox, you'd say "I was in Family Ties", right?
posted by wackybrit at 7:33 PM on July 25, 2006

I looked at some of my late-1940s to late-1950s playbills, and everyone was indeed appearing "in" films but "on" radio programs and, later, "on" various television shows. So the distinction has probably existed from the get-go. Perhaps the preposition drifted from radio to TV?
posted by thomas j wise at 8:00 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Would one say "I was on a sitcom" or "I was in a sitcom?" Both sound right to me.
posted by oddman at 8:11 PM on July 25, 2006

Again: what Meatbomb said.
posted by bunglin jones at 9:49 PM on July 25, 2006

As others have touch upon ... TV supplanted radio and inherited its slang. Of course, that just moves the question back to: Why are you "in" the movies, but "on" Radio?
posted by RavinDave at 9:50 PM on July 25, 2006

MeatBomb's answer avoids the question. True, you're "in Gone With The Wind" and "on the big screen." But the question wasn't about "the big screen." Actors aren't "on movies." They're "in movies" and "on TV" and in neither case am I referring neither to a genre nor a specific work but to a medium.

Also, "Michael J. Fox was on Family Ties" and "Michael J. Fox was in Family Ties" are both roughly equally well represented in Google (searched for "fox * on family ties"/"fox * in family ties"). And just for good measure, Ted Danson was in/on Cheers in roughly equal proportions, too.
posted by stuart_s at 11:17 PM on July 25, 2006

If I was 'on' a show, that suggests a guest appearence. If I was 'in' a show, I would be a regular cast member.
posted by Goofyy at 12:33 AM on July 26, 2006

Meatbomb's answer has the satisfying plausibility of most wrong answers to linguistic questions. It's possible this question can be answered, but the answer would come from painstaking linguistic analysis, not top-of-the-head "logic."

My choice for best answer so far:
It's just the way those particular idioms worked out.
posted by languagehat at 6:33 AM on July 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

Caveat: I think there really may be no underlying pattern here, that it's just arbitrary. However, if I were to speculate, I'd say this:

People are in movies because they are in pictures, that is, they appear within the frame of the picture, not superimposed upon it. "Movie" is just shortened from "moving pictures," so it's plausible that in the early days of the cinema, speech habits were dictated by how we talk about still pictures.

In TV and radio, you are "on the air", or in some contexts "over the air." Radio was a pretty novel thing when it came out, and could not be analogized from still pictures, so the preferred preposition was probably up for grabs (I would not be surprised if texts from the 1920s showed variable preposition usage). TV, of course, is readily analogized from radio, so that's where the prepositions come from.

This makes me think about net-based media. ZeFrank appears in a show that's transmitted over the Internet, or through a series of tubes. But you can see it on the Internet. There are probably some situations where some people might say "in the Internet," though I can't imagine people saying "at the Internet."
posted by adamrice at 6:50 AM on July 26, 2006

"Michael J. Fox was on Family Ties" and "Michael J. Fox was in Family Ties" are both roughly equally well represented in Google

For God's sake, don't rely on Google searches.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:51 AM on July 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think there really may be no underlying pattern here, that it's just arbitrary.

I'd be willing to agree with this. I remember my Italian teacher complaining about the (similar) arbitrariness of "insist on" vs. "persist in," which requires a good deal of mental gymnastics to justify.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:00 AM on July 26, 2006

Not that this has anything to do with the topic, but if you put quotes around "intents and purposes" and "intensive purposes" the proper one wins out. (Let's keep our faith in humanity intact for at least a while longer.)

That to say, I think that in many instances, Google is perfectly valid for usage checks.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 7:37 AM on July 26, 2006

(For those who didn't click kittyprecious's link, that's what my above response was to.)
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 7:38 AM on July 26, 2006

I feel so much better now.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:51 AM on July 26, 2006

Me too. That actually terrified me.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 11:51 AM on July 26, 2006

"IN a movie" is still "on" the big screen. So, the medium is associated with reality itself: a person was IN a realm, not ON a device. Alternatively, when shows are broadcast onto the television, or heard on the radio, both devices a referenced as the medium. To see someone "on a television show" can imply they were seen on a television set, or a game/talk show set (which is also the way they reference themselves: "Thanks for coming onto the show"). To suggest that someone was seen "on" a fictional TV show is still associating the medium with their appearance. ("I saw him on Nip/Tuck.")

Ontologically, however, we can also disassociate the medium without being aware of it, as we do when we say someone is IN a movie. This says a lot about movies culturally, because we are using dream analogy. We have dreams ("I dreamed I was in..."), but engage in fantasies ("about" something). Dreams happen to us, but we also "have" movies because we culturally take them in more selective ways. Movies are closer to dreams in span and structure. In deeper dreams, we reference ourselves subjectively, so we only see ourselves in the mirror. In fantasies, we direct ourselves, outside ourselves. It isn't real to us. Likewise, TV goes on without us, it isn't our reality. We tune in and channel the medium, but we do not become the medium, as in a movie or a dream. Therefore, someone is ON TV (a separate reality), but not IN it (our personal reality).
posted by Brian B. at 12:07 PM on November 14, 2006

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