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What's the Difference?: "Look," "See" and "Watch"

What's the Difference?: "Look," "See" and "Watch"

"Look" and "see" are two of the most basic verbs that all English students learn early in their study. However, many people have trouble understanding the proper ways to use them. This may be because their native language has only one word to express these ideas. And when you add "watch" to the group, it can make things even more complicated!

If you're confused by this vision-based vocabulary, this article will be a handy guide to help you understand what makes each word unique and how to use them properly.


Since all of these verbs relate to vision and the eyes, what separates them is the focus of attention. In other words, who or what is being looked at, watched or seen.

Starting with look, it is most often used to refer to objects as well as things or scenes that do not move

Could you take a look at this report before I submit it?
Don't forget to look both ways before crossing the street.
The children looked away whenever the monster appeared on screen.

However, it can be used to refer to people and living things.

I knew they were lying when they couldn't look at me while they spoke.

However, even in uses like the one above, the person speaking was probably not moving much.

Of the three verbs covered in this article, look is the most commonly used in the imperative form, or, when giving instructions or commands.

Look at me when I'm talking to you!
Look over there! It's Jim!

For all of these uses, the action is usually quick. This makes it different from watch, which we'll explain next. 

In casual speech, look is often used to introduce a strong statement.

Look, I don't know who gave you that information, but it's incorrect.

While this usage is very common, it is not related to vision. In fact, it is actually closer in meaning to "listen"!


A couple sitting on a rock and watching the sun set

"Watch" is used when directing attention to someone or something in motion. So instead of documents, buildings or a clock, for example, it is used for actions, performances and processes that take time to complete.

I can do a backflip. Watch!
Would you mind watching my kids while I go to my doctor's appointment?
I watched a really interesting nature documentary last night.
That lecture was duller than watching paint dry.
I'm watching the ballgame now; can I call you back later?

You can notice the difference between look and watch in the following pair of example sentences:

We sat and looked at the sunset.
We sat and watched the sun set.

The first sentence uses "sunset," which is a noun for an event or time of day when the sun goes down. The second uses "sun set" — here, the sun is in the process (or action) of setting. Compared to the first sentence, the second example implies the passage of time in order to complete a process.


A man raising his eyeglasses and checking his vision

"See" is a bit different than the other two verbs. This is because its main nuances are ability and reported information.

Look over there! It's Jim! 
I don't see him. Where is he?
It's difficult for him to see clearly without his glasses.
I put my daughter on my shoulders so she could see the show.
The water was so clear, we could see almost to the bottom of the lake.
Amanda said she saw you at the library last week.

See is also used in documents to refer to different sections.

See page 42 for more details.

To summarize, look is mostly used for subjects that are still and don't move, while watch focuses on subjects in motion. Looking can usually be done quickly, while watching often takes some time. 

As for see, it is less about vision and more about ability — whether something/someone is or is not visible. Additionally, look and watch can be used imperatively, but see is almost never used this way.

Other vision-related verbs

A man peeking through window blinds

Once you've understood how to use the three verbs above, you can move on to learning some other vocabulary related to the eyes.


"Glancing" is looking at someone or something quickly.

After glancing at his watch, he decided it was time to leave.


When you "stare," you are looking at someone or something with intense focus. It is generally considered rude to stare at other people.

I couldn't stop staring at that painting in the museum lobby.


"Glaring" is just like staring except that it is only used when the subject is a person. Also, while staring is often done with a blank or neutral expression, when you glare, you have a mean or unfriendly expression.

Sue was glaring at me the entire meeting. Why is she so upset?


"Gazing" is looking while thinking about something that is usually unrelated — or maybe thinking about nothing in particular.

She gazed out the window while listening to her favorite song.


"Peek" is quite similar to glance because it refers to looking quickly. It is often used when looking at something inside of an enclosed space.

He peeked into the room to see if anyone was there.


As you can see, English has quite a variety of ways to talk about how we use our eyes. Sometimes, these verbs don't relate to vision at all.

Remember the unique points of each individual word and you'll be able to use them skillfully at the proper times.