The meaning of listen, hear, see, look and watch

Making sense of our senses

See, look, watch, listen and hear have differences in meaning and it is important to use the correct one. see-watch-look-listen-hearThey cannot be used interchangeably but their use is often muddled up by students of the English language.

See, look and watch are all verbs which we use when talking about our eyes – our sense of sight.

Hear and listen are verbs that describe how we use our ears – our sense of hearing.


See, look, or watch?

I looked out of the window and saw a cat lying on the grass. It was watching a bird in the tree.

In the sentences above we have used all three words, with each having a different meaning. Can you work out their meaning? Below are definitions for each word

  1. Something that is in front of your eyes, you make no decision to use your sense of sight, it just happens
  2. You concentrate on something, usually for a long period, and it will move or change
  3. You deliberately move your eyes to see what something is, it usually happens for a short period and you have a reason for doing it

(1) to see ; (2) to watch; (3) to look – always followed by a preposition (at, for, out of, into, over….).

It’s all about intention. With see, you have no intention, look has an intention and watch has both an intention and intensity usually because something is changing or moving.

We see a bus on the street, we look at a book, we watch a football match/television.

We can use either see or watch when talking about a film: I saw/watched the latest Star Wars film at the cinema.

Listen or hear?

I heard the phone ring when I was listening to the radio.

Can you work out the meaning of hear and listen in the sentence above?

  1. A sound comes into your ears without you making an effort
  2. You concentrate when doing this and are actively trying to do it

(1) to hear; (2) to listen

You must use the preposition TO after listen

You need to remember that watch, look and listen are all action words – you make a conscious decision to do them. See and hear happen without trying.

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