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Do You Know the Differences Between Look, Watch, and See?

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In today's Ask a Teacher, our reader Hoang asks:

Question: What is the proper use of look, watch and see?

Answer: Hello, Hoang!

You are asking about the differences between three words which describe what we do with our eyes. I can help.

The Merriam Webster Learners' Dictionary says the differences are related to your action and attention.

  • "See" means to notice or become aware of someone or something by using your eyes.
  • "Look" means to direct your eyes in a particular direction.
  • "Watch" means to look at someone or something for an amount of time and pay attention to what is happening.

Two of these verbs can also act as nouns, but today I will talk about the three words as verbs.

So, let me tell you a little more about each verb.

Watch

I will start with the verb "watch." At a coffee shop, a friend may say,

I'm going outside for a minute. Would you please watch my bag?

The friend wants you to pay attention to the bag for a period of time.

Films, performances, games and people all are things you can watch.

In this case, the verb has an object - the bag. You can also use this verb without an object, as in this conversation:

Do you want to play basketball with us?

No, I'll just watch.

Look

The verb "look" is different from "watch." When you look at someone or something, you simply direct your eyes at that person or thing. It can be for a short time, and it might not involve much thought.

One other difference between the words "watch" and "look" is that "look" is often followed by an adverb or preposition.

When you dance, don't look down.

She looked at the bill before she paid it.

See

You do not need to use a preposition or an adverb with the verb "see." Sentences with "see" may have an object, or they may not.

With an object - I see a cat in the window.

Without an object - It will rain today - just wait and see.

Are you paying attention?

In short:

  • If you are talking about something that your eyes simply observe, you can use "see."
  • If you are directing your eyes at something, use "look."
  • And if you are paying attention to something, like a game or television program, for a period of time use "watch."

I hope this helps you use 'look," "watch" and "see!'

And that's Ask a Teacher!

I'm Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

Words in This Story

proper - adj. (grammar) exactly correct

noticev. to become aware of (something or someone) by seeing, hearing, and so on

awareadj. feeling, experiencing, or noticing something (such as a sound, sensation, or emotion) — often + of

adverbn. a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree

prepositionn. a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object

object - n. (grammatical) a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that receives the action of a verb or completes the meaning of a preposition

conversation - n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people

Do you have a question for Ask a Teacher? Write to us in the comments area and tell us your name and country. If you would like, you can also tell us one thing about yourself.

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