Commonly Confused Words: Hear Vs. Listen

Words with similar meanings and subtle usage differences can really confuse our students. We’ve already examined the differences between see, look, and watch in a previous post, and now we’ve received a request to explain the differences between hear and listen. Let’s take a closer look!

Overview

Here are the general rules for these two verbs:

# Rule Example
1 Use hear for instant actions. I hear a loud noise outside.
2 Use listen for longer actions. She is listening to the radio.

Now let’s look at these verbs in more detail.

Hear

Hear 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 seesmell, taste, and feel.

  • I hear a police siren nearby.
  • You don’t have to yell. I can hear you.
  • Did you hear that loud crash?

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

  • I hear a dog barking.
  • I am hearing a dog barking.

Listen

Listen is classified as an action (active) verb. We can use listen for short or long periods of time. Progressive forms are common with this verb. Listen is often followed by the preposition “to.”

  • They are listening to their teacher talk about grammar.
  • He listened to the first five minutes of the podcast.
  • We have been listening to the news all morning.

Tip

Point out that listen is usually followed by a preposition (such as to or for), whereas hear is not.

  • I am listening to my playlist.
  • We listened for the bell.
  • I hear something.

Exceptions

  1. When giving instructions or commands (using imperative verbs), we use listen, not hear, even though we expect the action to happen in that instant.

    • Listen to me! You’ll fail if you don’t study harder.
    • Listen, that’s not what I said.
    • Listen up! We only have 20 minutes to finish our project!
  2. Hear is not usually followed by a preposition, but we can use “hear about” to introduce a topic. The topic is often news or gossip and can be positive or negative.

    • Did you hear about the big train accident?
    • I heard about her award. That’s great news!
  3. Hear does not usually take a progressive (-ing) form, but we can use it for emphasis, especially when we’re angry.

    • Why am I only hearing about this now? You should have told me before!

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