Look, see or watch?
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These three verbs can be difficult to differentiate, here are their nuances:
Look implies that you look at something deliberately. It requires an effort on the part of the subject:
- Don’t look at me like that…
- Look! It’s snowing!
- Look at me while I am talking to you.
⚠️ When look has a direct object, it is followed by the preposition “at”:
- Look at the board. ✅
- Look the board. ❌
⚠️ When there is no direct object, there’s no need for a preposition:
- Look here. ✅
- Look at here. ❌
When the thing seen is the subject of the sentence, “look” refers to an appearance, an external perception. It then translates the idea of appearing (we can also use the verb ‘seem’ instead sometimes):
- You look pale.
- Do I look OK?
- She’s 60, but she doesn’t look it.
Look is the basis of many constructions such as look like :
- It looks like it’s going to rain.
- It looks like they are leaving.
⚠️ Look is also the basis of many phrasal verbs:
- look after
- look away
- look for
- look into
- look out
- look through
- look up
- look up to
We use see when something passes through the subject’s field of vision unintentionally, as soon as we open our eyes and without necessarily paying attention:
- I saw him at the party yesterday.
- Did you see that bird?
- I can’t see without my glasses.
- Bats can see very well in the dark.
⚠️ Be careful, the progressive form of see is not usually used with a name:
- I can see an elephant. ✅
- I am seeing an elephant. ❌
See is sometimes used with ‘if’:
- Let’s see if there is any food left.
We use see in the expression “See you tomorrow!”
⚠️ See is also used in several phrasal verbs:
- see about → Paul likes photography, I’ll see about buying him a camera for his birthday.
- see out → Thank you very much for coming here. Mrs. Smith will see you out.
- see through → When Pete was depressed, all his friends saw him through.
- see in → The receptionist sees in our visitors.
- see off → We all came to see Donald off and wish him the best of luck.
- see over → She said she’d like to see over the house.
- see to → Don’t worry, I will see to the leak in the piping.
Watch implies that you are much more active, you focus your attention on something that is moving on a screen or changing for a specific amount of time (a sunset, sports…). It has more or less the same meaning as look.
- We watched the sunrise.
- Don’t spend too much time watching TV.
- I like watching soccer on TV.
⚠️ Instead, we use see and not watch when we talk about a match or a public performance, such as a play, a concert or a movie in the cinema:
- We saw an interesting movie at the cinema last night.
On the other hand, if we watch a movie at home, we will use watch instead:
- I watched ‘Phantom of the Opera’ last night on TV. (it means we were at home.)
- I saw ‘Phantom of the Opera’ last night. (it means that we were at the movies or the theater).
⚠️ Watch can also be translated as ‘to be careful about something or someone’.
- Can you watch my bag for a moment?
- Watch him. I am certain he is up to something.
- Watch your step
We sometimes use the particle ‘out’ :
- Watch out!
- Watch out for cars when you cross the road.