Supervise vs. Monitor

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wants to know if there’s a difference between the verbs supervise and monitor.

Both are synonyms for the act of overseeing the execution of a task or activity. Some speakers use them interchangeably, but they do differ in connotation.

Supervise implies more interaction than monitor. Supervisors have the responsibility of informing and directing, while monitors observe without instructing.

A person who supervises children is expected to step in if they behave contrary to expectations; a person or machine engaged in monitoring an activity is not generally expected to deal directly with a problem, but to alert a person in charge.

The noun form for supervise is supervisor; monitor serves as noun as well as verb. A supervisor is always human; a monitor may be a human being or a machine.

Monitor comes from Latin monere, “to warn.” It’s the monitor’s job to warn someone that some activity is not proceeding according to plan.

You might monitor your utility bills by keeping track of the monthly increases and decreases.

The Yankees also will monitor what the Brewers do with Rickie Weeks, who could be beaten out at second base by Scooter Gennett.

Just asking a child to monitor their own behavior will increase the behavior that you want and reduce the behavior you do not want to see.

Sometimes a monitor may be expected to act, but only in an extreme situation requiring immediate attention.

Police expected to monitor Rizzuto funeral visitation closely

Another noun for the person who oversees the work of others is overseer, a word which can bear a negative connotation.

Historically, an overseer was in charge of slaves or, in Australia, a band of convicts.

In modern Australian usage, an overseer is the manager of a sheep station or other rural property. In American usage, an Overseer is a member of a university governing board, or a religious leader.

In general American usage, however, overseer is still strongly associated with slavery; think Jonas Wilkerson in Gone With the Wind.

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7 Responses to “Supervise vs. Monitor”

  • Danny

    So “monitor” comes from “to warn,” which makes a lot of sense in most cases. But what about a computer monitor?

  • Dale A. Wood

    I am pretty sure that the phrase “computer monitor” has a completely different root and source.
    It doesn’t really mean anything about “to warn” — unless maybe it did
    back 40 to 50 years ago.
    Dale

  • venqax

    Actually, all the uses of monitor– including the lizards and the ships– seem to come from the same origin. The idea of a computer monitor originally applied just to the screen, specifically, not the whole piece of equipment. The idea was that you used it to watch, observe, or monitor what the computer was doing. Which, as is still the case, was probably not what you wanted it to.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax: “The idea was that you used it to watch, observe, or monitor what the computer was doing.”

    This is not what the common computer “monitor” does anymore, and it has not been that way since 1975 or even earlier.
    The (vastly) primary use of a computer “monitor” for the more recent decades has been as a GUI – a Graphical User Interface – for sending commands to the computer and for receiving results from it.
    We haven’t been using the “monitor” to inspect the internal workings of the computer and to receive failure messages from it, in general.

    In other words, the monitor has become the tool for the computer user, and not for the computer operator or manager, in general. There has been a vast mutation in the use of the word.

    You are dealing with a fellow who was going to school in electrical engineering in the mid-1970s, and my EE department had something new: a system of “time-shared” computer monitors that were all connected to a minicomputer in the EE laboratories. (To be specific, the computer was a Digital Equipment Corporation – DEC – PDP-11 VAX computer.)
    This was quite a difference from the universities IBM 360 mainframe computer which still used the (exasperating) IBM keypunch cards for its input and a huge printer for giving its output on paper – printed out a whole line at a time. The whole IBM 360 was wonderful at what it could do in data-processing jobs, but it was a big, clumsy elephant for people like me who were trying to get it to do what we wanted it to do. I think that it “liked” to torment people. Then this was replaced by the IBM 370, which was also NOT user-friendly at all.

    Our PDP-11 with the electronic computer “monitors” was FAR more friendly and easy to use. By the way, I wondered for years what “VAX” meant, but finally I came across a reference that said it meant “Virtual Address eXtended”, and that is something that had to do with the “innards” of the computer and what they did. Common users like me didn’t have to know anything about that, and I used the PDP-11 for some math courses before I even started taking any engineering courses.

    Before you get disagreeable with people about something like the history of the digital computer and its terminology, it is better to ask someone who knows all about it, and preferably someone who lived through it. ASK, ASK, ASK. The term “computer monitor” has different meanings, and the present term was “borrowed” from an older usage.
    That is unfortunate, but that is the way that it is.
    There have been a lot of these shifts in meaning, such as in the word “computer”. A computer used to be a PERSON, one whose occupation was to do calculations all day for more senior scientists. Back in the past, most of the “computers” in astronomy and physics were WOMEN. Many bright women had the temperament for it, and besides that, observatories and research labs could GET AWAY WITH paying them a good deal less than paying men. (The same applied for telephone operators.) It wasn’t fair, but that was the way that it was.
    On the other hand, it did give mathematically-inclined women the opportunity to have jobs away from the home that were not cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, and nursing. From that point-of-view, the change to work as a “computer” was a positive move for women and their employment.
    It was a step towards women being able to become scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, dentists, professors, and eventually computer programmers, if they had the ability and the desire.
    Thus I have a sister who is a doctor, and I have had woman doctors and dentists, and woman lawyers, and I have worked with woman engineers and computer scientists. I had a girlfriend for a number of years who was a brilliant computer scientist in telecommunications and a wonderful friend who helped me a lot. Also, if she needed a favor, all she had to do was to call me.
    Lots of this stemmed back to woman “computers” back in the days before the electronic kind came into being.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Dale: I didn’t say that was what computer monitors do anymore. Not once. I actually put any reference to it in the past tense, “you used it to …”. I said that concept is where the term comes from. And it is. As it happens, that is what they are still used for, though. You mentioned, Graphical User Interface. That interface part is the monitoring concept.

    I don’t know why you think I’m being, “disagreeable” with anyone. I was just imparting where the term monitor comes from re the computer. That has nothing to do with your computer or engineering experience. Nothing. It has does have to do with English language which is the subject of this site. I don’t think the history of women in the workplace, feminine math aptitude, or you doing them favors has to do with anything at all here. Nothing. Again.

  • Shing

    Supervise = responsibility

    Monitor = NO responsibility except maybe to warn the supervisor, then it is the responsibility of the supervisor to do something.

  • Jennifer

    What are some connotations of the word “monitor” (Positive and Negative)? 🙂 I’m just curious

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