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“See” vs. “Look” vs. “Watch”: Helping You See The Difference

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Although all have to do with sight, there’s a difference between “see,” “look,” and “watch.”

Differences between the verbs see, look, and watch
Is there a difference between these three words? Read on to find out.
  • See means “to perceive by the eye.”
    • Did you see Trisha at the game last night?
  • As a verb, look means “to direct one’s eyes and attention to someone, something, or in a specified direction.”
    • Look over to the left of the screen.
  • Watch (as a verb) means “look at or observe attentively of a period of time.”
    • I had to watch a boring movie at school today.

The Difference Between “See,” “Look,” and “Watch”

One of the first things many English language learners notice is how there can seemingly be several words for one definition. Take for example see, look, and watch. These three words are closely related in meaning. However, there are a few subtle distinctions to keep in mind when using them. Below, we’ll cover the difference between see, look, and watch.

See and watch, look vs see
“See,” “look,” and “watch” all have to do with vision.

What Does “See” Mean?

See means “to perceive by the eye.” In other words, it means “to become aware of/notice somebody or something by using your sense of sight.”

Can you see the lighthouse from here?
Yes, I can see it.

Occasionally, people use the word see the same way they would use “understand.”

I see what you’re saying.
=

I understand what you’re saying.

An easy way to figure out if you’re using the word see correctly is to replace it with “notice” or “witness.” If it makes sense, you’re most likely using it properly.

Did you see him put the keys in his pocket?

Did you notice him put the keys in his pocket?

Did you witness him put the keys in his pocket?

A few words that are similar to see are:

  • perceive
  • glimpse
  • glance

What Does “Look” Mean?

Look can function as a verb or a noun. As a verb, it commonly means “to direct one’s eyes and attention to someone, something, or in a specified direction.”

Wow! Look at that beautiful house.

Whereas look is active, see is more passive because to see something doesn’t mean you purposely directed your gaze to it. Whatever it is you saw could have so happened to cross your line of vision.

Look can sometimes take the place of “search.”

Can you help me look for the car keys, please?
=

Can you help me search for the car keys, please?

In the sentence above, see wouldn’t make sense.

❌ Can you help me see for the car keys, please? ❌

As a noun, look refers to “the act of looking.”

Take a look at those sand castles over there.

Additionally, the noun look can also refer to “an expression” or “the appearance of somebody or something.”

She had a guilty look on her face.
Looks can be deceiving.

A few similar words to look are:


What Does “Watch” Mean?

Watch is a verb that means “look at or observe attentively of a period of time.” When you watch something, you are extending your focus towards it. In that sense, it is the most active of the three words.

Let’s go watch a movie.

Watch can also mean “to take care of somebody or something for a period of time.”

Can you watch the kids while I go pick up my mom?

Remember, if something requires focus, attention, or observation for more than a short period of time, then the word you’re looking for is watch. Look and see, on the other hand, don’t require much thought.

Let’s consider the following sentence:

Eddy saw Rachael take the bag out of the car.

The use of saw (past tense of see) implies that Eddy briefly noticed Rachel take the bag out of the car.

Eddy watched as Rachael took the bag out of the car.

In this restructured sentence above, watched (past tense of watch) implies that Eddy not only noticed, but also paid attention to Rachael as she took the bag out of the car.

A few words that are similar to watch are:

  • observe
  • survey
  • examine
Please Note:

Watch can also function as a noun and has three different meanings:

  1. “a small clock that you wear on your wrist”
    • The new watch he bought is very expensive.
  2. “the act of watching somebody or something carefully”
    • I’ll keep watch while you scour the office.
  3. “a fixed period of time in which somebody watches for any danger”
    • When I was in the Navy, I always volunteered for the first watch.

Do You See The Difference?

See, look, and watch all have several definitions, some that go beyond just vision. However, when it comes to using these words in reference to sight, both English language learners and native speakers sometimes use these words incorrectly. If you always want to use them properly, remember that:

  • See is the most passive of the three. You can see something just because it passed your line of vision.
  • Look is more active than see because it requires you to turn your attention toward someone or something.
  • Watch is the most active of the three because it requires your focus and attention for an extended period of time.

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