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ESL Story: Difficult pairs: listen vs. hear

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Difficult pairs: listen vs. hear

I’m going to start with a bit from my favourite poet, William Shakespeare. It’s quite short and easy to follow, so don’t panic! Friends, Romans countrymen lend me your ears. Julius Caesar has just been murdered and one of the conspirators, Mark Anthony has just started to deliver his speech at the funeral. What he is really saying is: Listen to me.

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‘Lend me your ears’ means: Open your ears and pay attention to what I am saying. And that’s the whole point of ‘listen’. It’s exactly what you do. You pay attention to a sound or a voice. When someone you are talking to is turning away or not taking any notice of what you are saying, you say: Will you please listen to me!

You might be out in the country and there is the sound of a bird singing. You say: Just listen to that bird song. In some places where a path is crossed by a railway line and there are gates either side so that you can cross, you will see a sign warning about the railway line and the fact that trains might be coming and you may well read the words: STOP LOOK AND LISTEN. ‘Listen’ as I have indicated can stand on its own but remember that if it is followed by an object, that object has to be preceded by the preposition ‘to’. ‘Listen carefully and listen to me’ People go to concerts to listen to an orchestra or a band. They listen to the radio. And someone who does this is called a radio listener. Sometimes you want to alert people in front of you that you are going to give out some information. To attract their attention you say: Now listen up. If you want to tell someone about a particular sound, say an instrument in an orchestra, you could say: In the second movement of the symphony, listen out for the tuba.

Now I can imagine that you are saying: What about hear then? Well, in my imagination I can hear you. ‘Hear’ is a verb to describe one of the five senses like ‘see’ ‘feel’ and so on. It is possible to hear something but not listen to it. You can hear the sound of the music coming from the house opposite but you don’t want to listen to it because it’s not your kind of music. You hear it as a sound in the same way as you hear the sound of an aeroplane engine overhead. It’s for that reason that ‘hear’ like the other words for the senses isn’t often found in the continuous form. It can also be used to mean ‘understand’ as in that popular expression: I hear what you’re saying. That means I fully understand what you are telling me. And in the continuous form? You can ask: What are all these stories I’m hearing about you getting married? This question suggests that people are telling you these stories. Well, that’s probably all you want to hear from me for the moment. Sit back, relax and listen to your favourite music.

And it's time for you to test yourself. Please take the listen vs. hear test here.

Dear Friend,
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: listen vs. hear?

Many thanks.

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Next:ESL Story: Difficult pairs: people vs. person

Author: Alan Townend


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