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What’s the difference between watch, look and see?

The verbs watch, look and see have very similar meanings. There are some rules we can follow, but the best way to learn these tricky verbs is in context with nouns and in phrases. Read on for an overview of the differences between watch, look and see, then practise your new knowledge in the free exercises.

Agnes has a busy weekend coming up. Tonight she’s seeing a mysterous new man for the first time.

She wants to look good, so she puts in her contact lenses – she can’t see without them – and looks at herself in the mirror.

Tomorrow, she is looking after her grandson. They are going to watch a football match together.


  • see = refers to the sense of sight
Agnes can’t see without her contact lenses.
  • If you open your eyes you see. That means we see automatically: even if we are not paying attention, or if we do not want to see. The act of seeing is passive.
When she looks out the window, she sees her neighbours gardening.
  • Use can + see to express that we see something in the moment of speaking. We do not use the -ing form (present progressive) to talk about the senses.

Agnes can see some new wrinkles around her eyes. (not: Agnes is seeing some new wrinkles.)
  • Use see in sentences with whether and if. Here see has the meaning of check or find out.

Agnes is trying to see whether her expensive eye cream works.

Seeing – different meanings

Using see in the progressive form changes its meaning.

Agnes is seeing a new man.

Agnes is dating a new man.

I’m seeing Phoebe later.

I’m meeting Phoebe later.


  • look = direct your eyes in a particular direction, to concentrate on or to pay attention to something that we can see. Unlike the verb see, the verb look is active; we can choose to look at things.
Agnes looks in the mirror every morning.

Looking is a deliberate action

  • Use the preposition at when we name the object of our attention (look + at + object).
She looks at herself in the mirror.
Agnes enjoys looking at the flowers in her garden.
  • Use look + adjective to talk about someone’s appearance.
Agnes wants to look good.
  • Look after and look for are phrasal verbs. They have different meanings. There are quite a few phrasal verbs with look. For more information check out our section on phrasal verbs with look.
Agnes looks after her grandchildren on Mondays.

look after = take care of

Her neighbours are looking for their cat in the garden.

look for = search for


  • watch = look at somebody/something for a longer period of time. The object of our attention is usually in motion in some way.
Sometimes, Agnes watches her neighbours doing the gardening.
  • We watch things because they develop, change, move or are in progress.
This weekend, she’s taking her grandson to watch a football match.
  • We watch TV but we can see and watch TV programmes and films.
Agnes watches TV with her friends, but tonight they are going to the cinema to see/watch a film.