It’s time for a quick story.
This is a story about a family of three words: Mr. Look, Mrs. See and Ms. Watch.
You’ll definitely meet these three characters if you’re an English learner.
But you should know that they don’t always get along.
One day Mr. Look, Mrs. See and Ms. Watch were all hiking in the woods.
Mr. Look saw a beautiful deer running through the forest. He said: “Look! Look at that deer! It’s so beautiful and big.”
Mrs. See was behind Mr. Look. She said: “I can’t see the deer! You’re in my way! I can’t see it!”
Ms. Watch said: “This is boring. I hate hiking. I want to go home and watch TV instead.”
All three of the hikers were talking about viewing things with their eyes. However, they used three different verbs. Why?
Look, see and watch can be very confusing verbs for English learners. They all mean similar things, but they’re not exactly synonyms.
Let’s look closely at these three important English verbs and learn when to use each one.
Look, See, Watch: Why Is It Important to Know the Difference?
Knowing the differences between look, see and watch immediately gives a native feel to your writing and speaking. These differences are often very small but can have very big impacts on the meaning of a sentence.
Learning the differences between look, see and watch can also help you avoid some uncomfortable misunderstandings.
For example, here are three very similar sentences:
Can you please look at my laptop?
Did you see my laptop?
Will you please watch my laptop?
Do you think these sentences look similar? Well, think again!
In the first sentence, you’re asking somebody to direct their attention to something on your laptop screen.
In the second sentence, you’re asking somebody if they noticed the location of your laptop.
In the third sentence, you’re asking somebody to guard your laptop for a period of time while you aren’t there (for example, if you’re working at the library and you have to go to the bathroom).
So, the difference between look, see and watch is very important!
However, don’t stress. I’ll explain all the differences below.
How to Practice Look, See and Watch
The first step is to relax and understand that even native speakers will confuse these verbs from time to time.
Next, find some ways to practice these three verbs through immersion. If you read and listen to lots of native English conversations, you’ll learn the differences between these three verbs.
Here are some ways to get started:
- Practice reading easy English books and stories. If you read them out loud, you can hear look, see and watch used in their correct form.
- While reading, you can also practice writing sentences with the three verbs. If possible, have your sentences corrected by a native-speaking partner or teacher as often as you can.
- For super-charged immersion practice, watch English videos on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos like movie trailers and news clips, and turns them into mini English lessons. Each video shows native English speakers having real conversations. You can use interactive subtitles and transcripts to read along and look up words.
Use the search bar to find videos that include the words look, see and watch. Or, just start watching videos and find these words naturally. Either way, check out FluentU’s free trial to get started.
Immersive practice will help you learn the subtle (small, difficult to notice) differences in the meanings of look, see and watch.
Now, let’s revisit our three friends from the original story.
Look, See, Watch: Three Tricky English Verbs to Keep Your Eyes On
How to Use the Verb “Look”
Look is defined by a few important details:
- Look is used to direct the attention of our eyes towards something specific.
- Look is a more active verb which is identified by eye movement and an intention to direct visual attention to something specific.
- In phrasal verbs, it’s usually short, sharp and snappy: Look here! Look there! Look up!
Look is often paired with the preposition at. For example:
Look at my new car.
Look at the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane…it’s Superman!
Look at my new shoes! Do you like them?
When I looked at the math questions on the exam, I began to laugh.
A good way to know when to use this verb is to imagine turning your whole body to look at something.
Look can also be paired with some other prepositions:
Look to the left! Look to the right!
Look over here!
A great example of this verb is to listen to the lyrics of the song “Yellow” by the band Coldplay:
“Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.”
In this case, the lead singer is directing someone’s visual attention to a sky full of stars.
Look is also commonly used when describing the appearance or aspect of someone or something.
You look very nice today. Did you change your hair?
The path looks a bit dangerous. Are you sure it’s safe?
Phrasal Verbs Using “Look”
Look is also used to form a number of phrasal verbs that are commonly used by native speakers. Let’s take a look at (direct our attention towards) a few:
Look into: To investigate something further.
Let’s look into the issue with the computer.
Look down (on): To perceive or consider another person as inferior to yourself.
Sometimes I feel like they look down on us.
Look up (to): To admire or respect another.
I look up to my mother because she is an incredible woman.
How to Use the Verb “See”
See can be hard to define, but here are some of the basics:
- See talks about the ability to perceive something with the eyes.
- See is less active than look. To “see” something doesn’t necessarily mean you directed attention to it on purpose.
When you look at something, you are actively doing something. See is much more passive. If it helps, you can think of seeing as something innate (something we’re born with, or something inside of us). A newborn baby is able to see, because a baby has eyes that observe anything around it.
A great way to know if you’re using see correctly is to replace it with the words witness or notice. If the sentence still makes sense, you’re probably using the right word.
Did you see Bill on the street?
Did you notice/witness Bill on the street?
Again, remember: seeing is less active, and is more about passively perceiving something.
Did you see that purple car pass by?
Have you seen my bicycle?
I was looking out the window and saw a beautiful bird.
Louis Armstrong, in his famous song “What a Wonderful World,” perfectly highlights the use of the word see:
“I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom, for me and you.”
See can also refer to shocking or surprising events that happen before our eyes:
Did you see that!? A bus just crashed into that car!
I can’t believe what I’m seeing!
Finally, we use see when we talk about visiting or spending time with people:
I went to see my parents last weekend.
I’m having dinner with my friend tomorrow. I’m very excited to see her.
Phrasal Verbs Using “See”
Just like her brother Mr. Look, Mrs. See is also used to create a number of useful phrasal verbs.
See (something) through: To continue an act until it’s finished.
I’m going to see this year of university through to the end and then decide what to do after.
See to: To manage or deal with a situation.
He’s a criminal and I’m going to see to his immediate arrest.
How to Use the Verb “Watch”
Here are some key characteristics that define watch:
- Watch is defined by an extended focus toward a particular object or event.
- Watch also implies some level of comprehension, focus or attention from the watcher.
- In this way, watch is a very active verb.
To watch usually involves concentration or attention, so it’s frequently used for things like movies, TV or other forms of entertainment that involve your eyes:
You have to watch this new documentary. It is amazing!
I watch a movie every Friday night.
Tourists visit from around the world to watch the sunset over the Taj Mahal.
Watch is also used if there’s information that needs to be learned. For example:
Are you going to watch the news tonight?
Did you watch the live stream of the lecture last night?
Watch me and I’ll show you how to do it.
In general, use watch to talk about anything that requires extended focus:
Watch me! I’m going to do a magic trick.
Can you watch the dog while I take a nap?
Phrasal Verbs Using “Watch”
Watch is a very cautious verb, and this is often reflected in its phrasal verbs.
Watch out: A command to be careful of potential danger.
Watch out! There’s a snake in front of you.
Watch out (for someone): To look after or care for.
Can you watch out for my brother while I’m away at university next year?
Watch it: A threat or a warning to another about their behavior or activities.
Don’t speak to me like that, you’d better watch it!
So, there you have it. That’s the story of Mr. Look, Mrs. See and Ms. Watch.
Verbs can be a very tricky component of English language learning. But with consistent practice, you’ll understand the fundamentals in no time. Keep at it!
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