Look, See, or Watch?

Similar but not always interchangeable verbs

ESL students are always asking about the differences between three verbs which describe what we do with our eyes.: see, look, and watch.

The Merriam Webster Learners’ Dictionary says the differences are related to action and the type of attention involved.

Let's take a look.


See” can refer to the purely physical ability of the eyes.

Suddenly, the blind man could see again.

(1) "See" can refer to the very basic act of using the eyes or to become aware of something through the use of vision. In these cases, you could replace "see" with "notice." (2) "See" can be abstract for becoming aware of a situation psychologically:

(1) When you go into the room, you will see that the walls are painted green.

I didn't see your message until now.

(2) After I explained my problem, he saw a new solution.

She thought about it then said, "I see what you mean."


"Look" means to direct your vision in a particular direction either (1) physically or (2) abstractly.

(1) "Look at me. Do I have food on my face?"

He looked at the painting in the art gallery for several minutes.

Look! There's a plane in the sky!

(2) "Look, we don't know what to do next."

If you really look at the situation, you'll see that there is no other choice to make.



“Watch” means to use your physical vision or abstract awareness (1) to observe activity, (2) to be ready for activity that could occur or (3) to protect objects in the absence of their owners.

(1) I want to watch you dance.

We were watching the movie when he arrived.


(2) We quietly watched the door until he finally entered.

Watch out! A bee landed on your shoulder.

While you set up camp, I will watch out for bears.

(3) I have to go to the restroom. Would you watch my laptop?

I watch my sister's kids while she works.

Sometimes see, look, and watch overlap in meaning and can be used interchangeably. Unfortunately, this happens on a case by case basis, but if you watch for the patterns, you will see them.

I saw that movie yesterday.

I watched that movie yesterday.

I never saw/looked at that movie as a work of art until I saw/watched it again yesterday.