Look at, watch, and see

Friday, March 25, 2016

When you're at the cinema, are you watching a film or are you looking at it? To be precise, you are watching it.

Why is it watch and not look at if they mean practically the same thing? It depends on how long your attention is on the activity.

Look at and watch are both active words. It’s something you want to do.
Look at is for a short time. We are trying to see what it is and we are paying attention.
(Example- Nancy looked at the clock.)

Watch is for a longer period of time. We observe attentively, typically over a period of time. (Example- Let's watch television.)

See is an inactive word. When your eyes are open, you do it without thinking; something “comes to our eyes”. It doesn’t always mean that we are paying attention. (Example- Richie saw an eagle in the sky.)

I often hear errors from English learners regarding look at, watch, and see. For example, when you talk with something in person or on Skype, you look at them. You're not watching. You're not observing their activities. It's an interaction, so you look at them and they look at you. In Hawaii, many tourists like to go whale watching (an extended activity).

Think about your attention to an activity (active or passive) and how long your attention is on an activity (short or long time) and you'll have no problem with look at, watch, or see.

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