Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The prepositional phase

with 2 comments


A few days ago, a seemingly innocent question was posted to the Explain Like I’m Five forum on Reddit: “Why do we say someone was ‘in’ a movie, but ‘on’ a TV show?” This may not seem like a mindblower, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about here for a long time, and I find myself thinking about it at least a couple of times a week. In particular, it occurs to me whenever I type up a descriptive tag for an image on this blog, which is often a screenshot of an actor in a movie or on a television show. When you’re doing the kind of routine housekeeping, your thoughts tend to wander in odd directions, and I’ve consistently found myself wondering why I need to type “Jon Hamm on Mad Men” on the one hand and “Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar” on the other. And while prepositions in any living language are inherently weird and inexplicable—as a few spoilsport commenters on the thread above take pains to point out—I think it’s still worth digging into the problem, since it seems to express something meaningful about the way we experience these two different but entwined forms of storytelling.

As usual, the discussion on Reddit involves a lot of wild guesswork and speculation, but it settles around a number of intriguing points:

  1. A television set is perceived as an object, while a movie is a collection of information. Saying that someone is “on television” is rooted in our experience of that piece of furniture in our living room on which stories are projected—hence the usage “What’s on?” A theatrical feature, by contrast, has an inherent intangibility, as a series of flickering images appearing at a distance: it’s less a physical thing than an event.
  2. Conversely, you could also think of a television show as an ongoing process, while a movie has a fixed beginning or end. Thus it seems intuitively correct to think of an actor as “on” a television show, as if he were a passenger on a journey with no obvious destination, while the same actor resides “in” the clearly defined container that a movie provides.

And while there are additional nuances involved here—can we say an actor was “in” a show that is no longer on the air?—it seems that these prepositions hinge on paradoxical properties of physicality and duration. A television show is a physical object with no endpoint; a movie is an intangible idea with definite boundaries.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

If we follow this logic further, it sheds light on a number of problems of real practical resonance. There’s the issue, for instance, of why television stars have often encountered trouble finding the same success in film. Critics like to note that there’s a difference between the kind of personality we want to invite into our homes night after night and the kind we want to pay money to see in a theater. A face that resides comfortably in a physical box may not look nearly as appealing on a screen the size of a billboard: television actors tend to have faces, however attractive, that can fade into the background, while actors in feature films demand our attention. Similarly, a television show can—and often does—survive once its original lead has moved on, while nearly every mainstream movie is built explicitly around a star. Saying that an actor is “on” a show implies, rightly or not, that he could disembark while the series as a whole sailed on; try to remove an actor “in” a movie, though, and you’re talking about a fundamental disruption of the narrative fabric. It’s possible to take this kind of analogy too far, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions. But it’s hard not to regard those unassuming prepositions as signaling something deeper about how we relate to the fictional men and women in our lives.

Which raises the unanswerable question of how these linguistic conventions might be different if movies and television had somehow emerged together in their current form. (We can leave aside the related conundrum of why we “see” a movie in theaters but “watch” it everywhere else.) Neither film nor television is particularly tethered to any one device or delivery system these days: if anything, movies have gotten slightly more tangible, television harder to pin down. And while many shows have started to feel more like finite works of art, studio franchises resist tidy endings: it makes about as much sense to say that Matthew McConaughey was “in” True Detective as to say that Vin Diesel is “on” the Fast and Furious series. And while the line between these usages may continue to blur, to the point where our children may use them interchangeably, it seems likely that those propositions will persist for a while longer, much like the ideas underneath. A fossil word can live on in a language long after its original purpose has been forgotten, and old assumptions about media—like the premise that television is somehow a less reputable or prestigious medium than film, despite huge evidence to the contrary—also have a way of lingering on. And it can take a long time before we learn how to think, or speak, outside the box.

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2015 at 9:59 am

2 Responses

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  1. How fascinating! I love the crazy little things language does.

    Elisabeth Bridges

    July 1, 2015 at 6:33 pm

  2. I never thought of this. Thanks for sharing these interesting and thought-provoking theories!

    Angelina Hue

    July 1, 2015 at 7:23 pm

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