If you're an English learner, no doubt you've wondered how to correctly use the three verbs of visual observation: watch, look and see. While there is some overlap, all 3 have distinct definitions and usage. Using them correctly can be a problem for non-native English speakers, even C1s! But have no fear, because I'm here to solve all of your doubts.
Let's begin with the most basic: see
According to Oxford, to see is to perceive with the eyes; discern visually.
It's as simple as that. Right now, you can see the screen of your computer or your phone. You can see your hand holding the phone or controlling the mouse. You can see whatever is in the background. In other words, you can see anything that enters into your field of vision. It is not a decision nor an action, simply the state of being able to visually perceive something.
Remember that see always carries an object.
Did you see the game last night?
Every time I look out the window, I see cars driving by.
Watch vs look (at)
A very common mistake I hear from non-native English speakers is "I love watching art". Why is it a mistake? Well, while both verbs represent a decision to observe something, as a general rule, watch is used for things that move, while look is used for things that don't move.
So the correct sentence is "I love looking at art".
Here are some examples of things you can watch:
1. I love watching The Premier League.
2. Every Wednesday, I go to watch a movie with my girlfriend.
3. In the city, there are many street performers you can watch.
As you can see, watch can be used with an object (examples 1 and 2) or without an object (example 3). But in all three examples, the thing that is being watched is something that moves.
Now, here are some examples of look:
1. Last week, I went to look at a new office.
2. I have been looking at this painting for 2 hours; it's amazing.
3. Every time I go to Barcelona, I enjoy looking at the beautiful architecture.
Did you notice that in all 3 examples, the verb look was followed by the preposition at? Look is usually followed by a preposition of direction (look outside, look up, look over there, etc); and if we are looking at something specific, the preposition we use is at. Notice also that the three objects of the verb look are things that don't move.
Are there any other differences between watch and look?
Well, watch usually lasts a longer period of time. Watching a movie, for example, takes about 2 hours, while looking at a picture is often only for a few seconds. Look also refers to the action of looking at something; that is, the movement of the body, head or eyes to be able to see something.
Remember, whenever you watch or look at something, you also see it; but you can also usually see other things as well, even though you didn't make the conscious decision to watch or look at them. In some cases, watch or look can be replaced by see without a significant change in meaning.
Finally, here's an example of all 3 verbs in the same paragraph:
I was sitting at a bar with my friend Toby, when he saw an elephant walking down the street. He said to me "Look at the elephant over there!" We both watched the elephant for 10 minutes until it eventually walked around the corner.
"Look at this DVD. It's a documentary about animals living near the North Pole. It says that if you watch the documentary, you will see close-up film of polar bears hunting in high definition."
Now your turn!
My favourite sport to (watch/look at) is football.
Did you (see/look at) the fireworks last night?
I like to (watch/see) the surfers in the morning.
I can't (see/watch) you from here; it's too crowded.
Do you (watch/look at) The Simpsons?
Make sure you (look at/watch) the instructions before you begin the exam.
Post your answers in the comments or send me a message! And remember, if this article was useful for you, book some lessons with me!