Learners often mix up these three concepts. Understanding the difference and using them correctly is a little tricky. Let’s see if I can clarify them for you….
Look / Look at
When we look at somebody or something there is a specific intention, a reason. We turn our eyes in a particular direction and focus on somebody or something.
Can you look at the timetable and tell me the time of the next bus?
Emily was so angry with her brother that she couldn’t look at him.
Take note! 📝 When there’s no object we just use look.
Look! Isn’t that your sister over there?
See means that we notice or become aware of something or somebody, that the image of them comes to our eyes. There’s usually no specific effort involved*. See is often used to refer to the ability to use the sense of sight and it can also express the idea of something being visible. ‘Can’ and ‘could’ are often used with see.
Are you looking for your phone? I saw it on the sofa.
As we were coming out of the hotel we suddenly saw Elton John!
Bob doesn’t like driving at night as he can’t see very well.
Have you seen Monica’s new dog? He’s so cute!
I looked in the cupboard but I couldn’t see any tea.
Lucky them! They can see the sea from their house.
*However, in the case of entertainment see is similar to ‘watch‘. But we’ll move on to that in a moment.
It might be useful to point out that we also typically expand the idea of ‘see’ to mean things like ‘meet’ or ‘visit’ or ‘date’. Used in this way see becomes an action verb and so can be used in the continuous form.
I’m seeing Tom for dinner tonight.
Perhaps you should see the doctor about your knee.
Is George seeing anybody at the moment? (= Is he dating…?)
If we watch somebody or something we look at them carefully, we observe them for a period of time. We watch things that move or change or that may be about to move or change. We want to see what’s going to happen next. We watch TV because there are moving images. So we can’t watch photos or paintings, instead we see or look at them.
Do you want to play football with us? – No thanks, I’ll just watch.
If you’re not watching anything, please turn the TV off.
We watched the children as they played in the pool.
Investors are going to be watching the stock market closely tomorrow.
See vs Watch
When it comes to entertainment, that is, films, sporting events, concerts, etc, see and watch can sometimes be used interchangeably.
“How was the match?” – “Oh, I didn’t see/watch it in the end.”
The documentary was really long. I didn’t have time to see/watch the whole thing.
However, we generally use see rather than watch if we actually attend the concert, match, or theatre performance, etc. ‘Watch’ would sound strange in the following examples:
I’m so thankful I got to see George Michael in concert.
(Compare with: I watched the Coldplay concert last night: Here the listener would understand that you saw it on the TV)
I’d love to go and see Federer play at Wimbledon.
Our school took us to see “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” at the Barbican Theatre.
Tip: During the next week really pay attention to how native speakers use these words. Write down the examples you hear or read.
Now let’s practise, shall we? Scroll down for the answers.
Add look (at), see or watch in the correct form.
- I can’t _____ very well with these glasses any more.
- Can you be quiet! I’m trying to _____ this programme.
- If you _____ the photo closely you can _____ a dog in the background.
- While we were _____ the match the phone rang.
- There was so much fog that we couldn’t _____ a thing.
- Don’t _____ now but your ex-boyfriend has just arrived.
- What time are you _____ the doctor?
- Here, _____ the bill. They’ve made a mistake, haven’t they?
- I wish I could have _____ Queen in concert.
- I had this strange feeling that I was being _____.
- I can’t see very well with these glasses any more.
- Can you be quiet! I’m trying to watch this programme.
- If you look at the photo closely you can see a dog in the background.
- While we were watching the match the phone rang.
- There was so much fog that we couldn’t see a thing.
- Don’t look now but your ex-boyfriend has just arrived.
- What time are you seeing the doctor?
- Here, look at the bill. They’ve made a mistake, haven’t they?
- I wish I could have seen Queen in concert.
- I had this strange feeling that I was being watched.