Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

“Watching on”?

One hears this phrase more and more from sports commentators. A typical example would be a commentator at a sports event referring to an injured player or perhaps some celebrity as “watching on from the grandstand”.

Makes one wonder if, and why, “looking on” has suddenly become passé; or is it just an affectation started by someone trying to be different for the sake of being different and which has then been adopted by those who are inclined to participate in fads? Shall on-lookers now be known as on-watchers? Somehow it just doesn’t sound right.

Submit Your Comment

or fill in the name and email fields below:


I'm afraid the results at Ngram don't really tell us anything, because in most of the examples 'on' is simply a preposition:

"how much violence they watched on television".
"Tell me,is there anything else worth watching on those screens of yours?"

But Hairy Scot is talking about a phrasal verb, where 'on' is an adverb:

Try Ngramming 'watched on *,watching on *' and it's all prepositions; 'watched_ADV' gets no hits at all.

But go to Four Four Two, the British football magazine, and there's a very different story

"Watching on from afar will be Tosh Farrell, the former Everton coach"
"Munsterman will be watching on from the Netherlands on Saturday"

In these, 'watching on' is almost always followed by 'from', and 'looking on from' hardly gets a look-in, with only 5 hits, compared with 29 hits for 'watching on from'. ('watched on' 23, 'looked on' 7)

Meanwhile at Ngram, 'watching on from' draws a blank , although there are a few at Google Books, so I think HS is probably right that this is fairly recent and particularly connected with sport, and especially football and rugby, judging by what comes up when you do a standard Google search for 'watching on from'. Of the first 10 examples, eight are sports related (one is prepositional, and one is general - 'watching on from afar') :

Warrington Wolves (rugby league)
Twitter (American football)
Twitter (football)
Canada (World Cup football)
West Ham World (football)
Total Barca (football - Suárez: “You feel helpless watching on from afar”)
Daily Mail (football)
Facebook (football - the Suarez quote again)

There are 31 examples of 'watching on from' at Google Books, very few of which are connected with sport. The earliest is from a book published in India in 1977 - 'And he was off, trumpets sounding alert on both ships and a visibly worried Naval Chief watching on from the other side of the water.' And there are only three other examples from the 20th century, none of them connected with sport.

The earliest example at GB connected with sport is from 2007, and is about cricket:

"The setting could not have been more perfect: a hill-country town he loves, with a large family he adores, all watching on from the main pavilion."

And the next isn't till 2012, when we get a couple from 'El Clasico: Barcelona V Real Madrid', by Richard Fitzpatrick:

"There is a gulf separating the two 'traditions', between the political and cultural drivers that animate their fans watching on from the sidelines, and the reality of the sporting action on the field"

I've no doubt that certain expressions do get taken up by sports commentators and players, but see no particular harm in that. Most interest communities develop and use expressions in common: it's part of establishing a group identity, especially amongst young people. People copy their peers, sure, but is that affectation? I doubt it. In any case 'watching on' seems to me rather more active than 'looking on', and so entirely appropriate for people watching sport.

As for 'onwatchers', the football examples I've seen refer mainly to individuals, particularly managers, who you'd hardly call simple onlookers, so I don't think there's much danger of 'onwatchers' taking off. So HS can sleep easy on that one. (Come to think of it, would we normally refer spectators as onlookers, anyway?)

But good to see you getting the ball rolling again, HS. And interesting subject; I'd hadn't noticed it before.

Warsaw Will Dec-02-2014

2 votes   Permalink   Report Abuse

Correction - 'watched on_ADV'

Warsaw Will Dec-02-2014

0 vote   Permalink   Report Abuse

Thanks HS for putting me on to this. I've now done a bit of research, which I've posted on my blog, and this this is how I conclude:

"The expression 'look on', as in 'watch from a distance', goes back to least to 1601. A variation, 'watch on', has been used very occasionally in books since around 1820, but with nothing like the frequency of 'look on'.

In the vast majority of cases, this use of 'watch on' in books is unconnected with sport: I've only been able to find sixteen sports-related examples at Google Books, with the earliest from 1950. Of these only two are to do with football, the area where it seems to be primarily used in the media, and both of those are recent, 2012 and 2013.

It appears to have started being used in the British media in the early years of this century, with the earliest I've been able to find being from 2003, but didn't really take off till about 2012, most examples being from 2103-2014."

Incidentally, there are a couple of interesting points from a NZ perspective: one of the earliest book references is from 'McKechnie, Double All Black: An Autobiography', New Zealand, 1983:

"Watching on as McKechnie made his point at national level for the first time, his Southland Boys' High School coach Clive Williams recalled how he had been drawn to his ability seven years earlier."

And the earliest newspaper example I can find is from an AP report on a game between the All Blacks and Canada at the 2003 Rugby World Cup:

"Watching on from the sidelines was Ben Blair, whose World Cup future was thrown into doubt just hours before the kick-off"

Warsaw Will Dec-06-2014

1 vote   Permalink   Report Abuse


One swallow does not a summer make, nor yet a meal.


user106928 Dec-29-2014

0 vote   Permalink   Report Abuse

Do you have a question? Submit your question here