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ESL Story: Difficult Pairs: see vs. look

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Difficult Pairs: see vs. look

Some years ago in the British government there was a particularly remarkable man who held a senior post in it... I have described him as ‘remarkable’ because he had reached this high government position despite the fact that he had been blind from birth. He would attend meetings and speak in parliament always accompanied by his faithful guide dog.

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As you can imagine, there were occasions when other speakers addressing him would say something that was seemingly quite innocent but would cause embarrassment when applied to him, asking questions like: Don’t you see minister that this is wrong? He always took this sort of remark in good humour. I mention this because ‘see’ in our next pair has several meanings. In the question above ‘see’ has the sense of ‘understand’ or ‘realise’. Apart from its first meaning of observing something with your eyes as in: When the weather is good you can see the mountains through my bedroom window, we can quite easily use it as follows:

We are seeing the Richardsons next week for dinner, which means we are going to visit the Richardsons next week and they are giving us dinner. This of course is an example of using an apparent stative verb (the action is involuntary) in the continuous form and using ‘see’ in one of its other meanings. Likewise: John and Mary are seeing each other at the moment means John and Mary are dating each other, are boy friend and girlfriend.. Now the other side of the mirror, as it were, is the verb ‘look’ the other member of this pair. On its own, that is without any preposition and as an intransitive verb, it suggests ‘appear’ ‘have the appearance of.

It occurs like this: The country is experiencing a downturn in the economy and the future looks bad. In a continuous form: What’s the matter with you today? You are looking very miserable. Also possible: Don’t worry about that expression on his face, he always looks miserable! And then of course the noun: ‘look(s) ‘.

Good looks in a person can help a lot in getting what you want. We can describe this person as ‘good looking’ indicating ‘attractive’, for men and women. When the verb is transitive we have to add the preposition ‘at’. This follows the same pattern as ‘listen’ and ‘listen to’. You can ‘see’ a painting because it is before your eyes but if you want to see exactly what is in the painting, you have to ‘look at’ it: Although I have seen that picture many times, this is the first time I have really looked at it.

If you don’t see what I’ve been talking about, may I suggest you look at it again?

Dear Friend,
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: See or look.

Many thanks.

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please post them on this English Grammar Forum.


Next:ESL Story: The behaviour of cats and dogs

Author: Alan Townend


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