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.

"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."

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

I didn't see your message until now.

Finally, "see" can be abstract for becoming aware of a situation:

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

After I explained the reasons, she replied, "I see what you mean."


  • "To 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 it, you'll agree that there is no other choice to make.


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

(1) Do you want to dance with us?

No, I'll just sit here and watch you.


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

We quietly watched the door until he finally entered.

Do you want to watch me do a magic trick?

Watch out! A bee landed on your shoulder.

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

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.

Please look while I demonstrate how to put on the lipstick.

Please watch while I demonstrate how to put on the lipstick.

Did you see how I put on the lipstick?

Look, I really hope you can see how to use these three verbs more accurately and watch for patterns.

Thanks for reading! See you next week!

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