SEE, WATCH, LOOK: Differences and Uses in English (AUDIO Reading Included)
"See" refers to the physical ability of sight. It means to notice something with your eyes, but it is also used to talk about movies, shows, and/or performances that a person has experienced, to talk about dating someone, as well as other idiomatic usages (discussed below).
"Watch" means to focus your eyes and attention towards something for an extended period of time, such as during a movie, a performance, a sporting event, etc.
The difference between using "see" and "watch" for movies, shows, events, etc. is that "see" refers to the singular experience while "watch" refers to the process of the experience, but the end result is the same. You can equally say "I saw that movie last week," or "I watched that movie last week."
"Look" means to direct your eyes and attention towards something. It is in common phrases such as "look for" and "look like." It is also used in several idiomatic ways, as in the phrasal verbs "look forward to," "look after," "look up," and others.
Do you watch a movie or do you see a movie? Also, can you look at a movie? These are good questions when you're learning English. Let's not waste any time, and let's look at the differences and similarities between these three common words.
Do you see what I mean?
First of all, "see" refers to the physical ability of sight. If you are reading this, you can see. If a person is physically incapable or almost physically incapable of seeing, they are blind. (For more details on levels of visual impairment, look at this page from the World Health Organization.) If you can see, you can notice or experience things with your eyes. Let's look at some quick examples:
"I saw Dana at the bank. She was there with her dad."
"We want to go to France this summer. I'd love to see the Eiffel Tower."
"I've never seen a grizzly bear up close." ("up close" means at very close range)
"Have a good night. See you tomorrow."
"Jim saw a horrible accident and is suffering from shock."
"Did you watch the game?" "No, but I saw the final score." ("Did you see the game?" is equally possible here. Keep reading to learn more.)
In all of these cases, "see" refers to experiencing something. If these examples are simple and make sense to you, that's good! Let's take a look at some other common uses:
"Have you ever seen a musical?"
"Did you see the news? They said there's going to be a big storm this weekend."
"Have you seen the trailer for season two?"
"We're going to see the new Pixar movie next week."
"I haven't seen a concert in ages." ("in ages" means "in a really long time")
In the case of visiting public places, you can "go to" them, too. For instance, you can go to a concert, go to a soccer game, or go to the movies (this is the most common way to say "the movie theatre" or "the cinema" in North America). As you can see, there is more than one way to talk about experiencing something.
Now that we have looked at some common ways to discuss experiencing something visually, let's direct our attention to (or "look at") slightly more idiomatic uses of "see." Here are some of the most common idiomatic usages of this word:
"I see your point," or "I see what you mean." (This means I recognize and understand what you are saying.)
"Melissa and Patrick are seeing each other." (This means they're dating.)
"You should see a doctor." (This means you should make an appointment to visit a doctor.)
"They don't see eye-to-eye with each other." (This means they have different feelings and/or opinions from each other. Their views are incompatible.)
"I'll believe it when I see it." (This means I will only believe it when I have visual proof.)
Practice: Who is someone you usually see eye-to-eye with?
Wait! So, what about "watch"?
You can also watch a movie, watch a show, or watch a movie trailer. The difference is what you have in mind at the time of speaking. Are you imagining the totality of the experience ("I saw it"), or the process of the experience ("I watched it")? In the case of the news, it's more common to say "I saw the news" because we have so many more ways of getting news that don't involve watching a news program on our TVs or other screens. Of course, you can still say "I watched the news" or "I was watching the news" to refer to sitting down and viewing a news program for a continuous period of time.
In the case of concerts, it's much more common to use the verb "see" if you want to say you went to a concert. "I saw a concert with my sister last night" is much more common and sounds more natural than "I watched a concert with my sister last night," unless it was a televised concert. Again, if you just want to focus on having the experience, "see" works best in most cases.
To make things a little clearer, here are some examples where "watch" and "see" are both possible.
"I've never seen/watched Titanic from start to finish."
"We're going to see/watch a play this weekend."
"I saw/watched the trailer for season five last night. It looks great!"
"I can't believe you didn't see/watch the game!"
One of the only times you should use "watch" exclusively is when you're in the middle of experiencing something, typically a movie, TV show, or other video content. For example, "Sorry, I can't talk. I'm watching a movie right now," or "Hey, what are you watching?" Basically, you use "watch" to mean that you are directing your eyes and attention to something for an extended period of time in order to experience it. Let's look at a few more common examples:
"Stop looking at your phone and watch the game." (This can be on television or live at the event.)
"Hey, are you watching this show, or can I change it?" "Go ahead. I'm not really paying attention to it anymore."
"Wait. If you're here, who's watching the baby in the other room?!" (Yes, you can "watch" children, or other people or groups of people, meaning that you are in charge of paying attention to what they're doing.)
Finally, let's look at some idiomatic uses with "watch":
"Watch your mouth," or "Watch what you say." (This means be careful what you say.)
"I'm trying to watch what I eat." (This means I'm trying to pay attention to my diet.)
"Watch out!" (This is a warning which means "Pay attention!" or "Move out of the way!" "Look out!" has the same meaning and usage.)
"I keep watching the clock." (This means I am anxious about something that is scheduled to happen, either because I can't wait for it to happen, or because I'm afraid I won't have enough time to do something or for something to happen.)
Practice: Do you normally watch what you eat?
Look at this...
If you look at something, you direct your visual attention to it. You can look at the sky, look at your phone, look at your watch, look at the floor, and so on. When you're watching a movie at the theatre, you are looking at a movie screen. Here are some more examples with "look at":
"Don't look at me like that." (This is usually said after you say or do something that makes another person look at you in a negative, disapproving way.)
"What are you looking at?" (This can sound aggressive depending on the situation.)
"I looked at your website yesterday." (I browsed it.)
"Look at this!" (This is a common way to direct someone's visual attention towards something.)
If you look for something, you search for it. You can look for a job, look for your glasses, look for your phone charger, look for a new car, and much, much more. You can even look for meaning in your life, if you'd like a deeper and more serious example.
"Look" is an interesting verb because it has many, many uses. So, instead of trying to explain them in paragraphs, let's look at some examples and quick explanations.
"You have something on your face. Look in the mirror." (Meaning, look at your reflection in the mirror.)
"I'm looking forward to my vacation." (Meaning, I'm anticipating it with pleasure.)
"Alissa looks up to her mom." (Meaning, she admires and respects her mom, and looks at her as a role model--someone to mimic and want to be like.)
"It looks good on paper, but I'm not sure it's realistic." (Meaning, it's a good idea in theory.)
"Don't look down on me." (Meaning, don't look at me as if you are superior to me.)
"He's a good-looking guy." (Meaning, he's attractive.)
"You look like your mom." (Meaning, you physically resemble your mom.)
"It looks like we need a different plan." (Meaning, it appears or seems that we need a different plan.)
"Who will look after the dog while we're away?" (Meaning, who will watch and attend to the dog while we're on vacation; also, "Who will take care of the dog while we're away?")
Practice: Who did you look up to when you were a kid?
Well, that's it. I know there's a lot of information on this page, so I recommend coming back to it from time to time and reviewing the phrases and usages that might be new to you.
If you benefited from this resource and you'd like to support my work, while continuining to support your English progress, please consider purchasing a PDF or physical copy of one of my books. I wrote all of them with English learners and teachers in mind. Until next time, I wish you success on your learning journey!