Commonly Confused Verbs: See, Look, Watch

Why are there so many verbs associated with using our eyes in English, and how do we explain the differences to our students? The verbs see, look, and watch don’t always follow the rules that action (active) and non-action (stative) verbs normally follow.

While I was writing the grammar notes for our reformatted Simple Present Vs. Present Progressive lesson the other day, the phrase “seeing a movie” came up. Head writer Tara and I debated questions like Can we use this present progressive form to mean present time, or does it only indicate the future? and Would we ever use this to mean at home, or do we only use it for a theater? 

We also discussed what the best verb was for fireworks since it was the end of June at the time, and Canada Day, Independence Day, and Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale) were all about to take place in July. Do we see, look at, or watch fireworks?

Let’s take a closer look at the basic rules and the many exceptions for see, look, and watch and see if we can’t answer all these questions.

Overview

In general, here are the rules for the three “seeing” verbs:

# Rule Example
1 Use see for instant actions. I see an accident up ahead.
2 Use look for short actions. He is looking at his watch.
3 Use watch for longer actions. We are watching TV.

See Vs. Watch

See

See is classified as a non-action (stative) verb because it happens in that instant only. It is one of the “five senses” verbs that also include hear, smell, taste, and touch.

  • See this? It’s my new tablet.
  • Do you see what I see? Is it a UFO?
  • I can see you from across the room.

We normally don’t use progressive forms with non-action verbs.

  • I see a black cat.
  • I am seeing a black cat.

Watch

Watch is classified as an action verb that is the longest of the three verbs. We can use watch for a few minutes or a few hours. Progressive forms are common with this verb.

  • I watch TV for two hours every day.
  • I am watching a TV show.

Exceptions

In informal speaking and writing, see can take on the role of a longer action verb. We use see in place of watch in certain expressions, the most common of which is with movies and plays at a theater. See Non-Action Verbs & Exceptions for more examples.

  • She is seeing a movie with her friends on Friday.
  • They are seeing a play this afternoon.

Check out our Eye Idioms poster

Notes

Note #1

It is interesting to note that we would never use see when watching a movie at home. Use it only when at a movie theater.

  • They are watching a movie at home.
  • They are seeing a movie at home.

Note #2

Also note that the progressive see is used for future actions, not present ones.

  • He is seeing a movie tomorrow.
  • He is seeing a movie now.

Note #3

We can use watch a movie/play for the present and see a movie/play for the future. Another common future option is go to a movie/a play/the movies* (*remind/teach students that the movies means a movie theater).

  • We are watching a movie now.
  • We are seeing a movie this weekend.
  • We are going to a movie later tonight.
  • We are going to the movies this weekend.

Note #4

When else do we use see for a long action? See (future) or watch (present) are common for a movie, play, show, musical, or performance. For a concert, go (future) or at (present) are the most natural-sounding verbs.

  • We are seeing/watching a movie/play/show/musical/performance.
  • We are going to a concert. or We are at a concert.

Note #5

Remember our fireworks question from this post’s intro? Stick with watch.

  • We are watching the fireworks.
  • We are seeing the fireworks.

Note #6

Can we ever use watch as an instant non-action verb? We can indeed. Look, too. Because English. Note that the meaning becomes less about using our eyes and more about being careful.

  • Watch out!
  • Look out!

Note #7

For higher-level students, point out that see can also mean date in English. For this case, the active, progressive form is also possible, and we can use it to indicate present time, unlike with the “watch” meaning of see.

  • He is seeing someone new now.
  • We’ve been seeing each other for two months.

Look: Two Uses

Action Verb

Look is usually an action verb where we use our eyes for a short period of time. It is often followed by a preposition such as at or out. The progressive form can be used and is very common.

  • She is looking at him again.
  • They are looking out the window.
  • I am looking for the answer online.
  • You have looked at your watch 10 times in the past five minutes.
  • He looks at his phone every morning as soon as he wakes up.

Non-Action Verb

Look also has a non-action meaning that has nothing to do with using our eyes. It describes a state of being/feeling that is used in place of the verb to be. Like most non-action verbs, the progressive form is rarely used with this case.

  • He looks nervous.
  • You look beautiful!
  • They look like they could use a break.

The difference between be and the non-action look depends on who is noticing the state of being. We can use be when the subject knows something or when the observer knows something. We can only use look when the observer observes something (and usually doesn’t know for sure).

  • She is tired. (She knows she is tired and/or I know she is tired.)
  • She looks tired. (I think she is tired because she has bags under her eyes.)

Tip

Tell students to look for a preposition. If look is followed by a preposition, it is an action verb meaning “use one’s eyes” and can take the progressive form. If look isn’t followed by a preposition, it is a non-action verb meaning “be/seem” and cannot take the progressive form. For more tips and examples on the two uses of look, see Look, Appear, Feel + Adjective or Adverb?

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4 comments

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  1. valeryvassiliev@yahoo.fr'

    Valery says:

    Jul 12, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    Dear Tanya
    Thank you very much for the detailed explanation of the verb group: see, look, and watch.
    Does this group include a verb “spot”?
    Sincerely yours
    Valery

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 14, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      Hi Valery,
      You’re welcome! And good question. I’d say that we normally use “spot” like we use “see,” as an instant action. For example, I’d say “The room is crowded, but I spot two seats over there.” I couldn’t say “The room is crowded, but I am spotting two seats over there.”

      Reply

  2. Billysanso@gmail.com'

    Billy says:

    Jul 12, 2017 at 9:11 am

    I really appreciate this valuable information about using these stative and action verbs. Students confu se then most of the time.
    Your explanation is excelent and easy to assimilate.
    Thanks again.
    Teacher Billy

    Reply

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