Submitted by naokimurahashi  •  May 16, 2005

Questions for native speakers

I am university student, and take a seminar in a third grade. In the class, we were given assignments, which is we check on how native speakers feel or think about the following questions. So I would like to ask your opinions. Could you answer the following questions?

1. “The plane must land in a few minute.” When you read this sentence, what kind of situation do you imagine? I’d like to know the meaning of “must” in this sentence. So what kind of meaning does the “must” include?

2. In the same way, how about “He can seem so sane.”?

3. What is the difference among Look, See and Watch?

4. “He could hear the phone ringing on the other end but no one answered.” In this sentence, do you think the phone rang straight? Does “can/could + feeling verb” mean an instant or a moment situation.

Thank you very much for your time, and I’m looking forward to your opinions.

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I only really want to comment on the 3rd question, re see, look and watch.

Apart from fixed, conventional, uses and very situation specific examples, as per Dave Rattigan's reply, the main distinction drawn in EFL generally is as follows:

1. See - focusses on the result of an act of observation, on (some sort of) information being taken in and processed. e.g.
A: "Did you see that?"
B: "What?"
A: "The man with the gun."
(Meaning: You should be scared / run.)

2. 'Look at' and 'watch' are generally paired in that they both focus on the act / process of observation, rather than the result:

a. Look at - generally used to refer to static
things / objects, etc. e.g 'look at a picture', etc.

b. watch - tends to be used for more dynamic
situations or where the focus of attention is the
action rather than the object, so:
i. 'watch TV' - i.e. focussing one's attention on
the movement, action, etc, on the screen,
rather than on the control buttons, special
features, etc as one might when choosing a
TV ("We *saw* a really nice new Sony in the
shop on Saturday. Bit expensive, though.").
ii. 'watch the match' - one watches the players'
movements, etc.

c. where this becomes a little trickier is in cases where one could use either. Contrast:
i. 'look at the girl sitting outside the cafe'
("Doesn't she have a cool hairdo!") and
ii. 'watch the girl sitting outside the cafe'
("She's passing a suspicious package to a
man in a long raincoat and sunglasses.")

d. An even trickier one, however, is 'watch the match' and 'see the match', where there is very little distinction and one would probably be left having to say that the distinction was simply one of result vs. process. I.e. if you *watch* the match, you're more interested in the enjoyment from watching it, whereas if you *see* the match, you're probably more interested in the result.


A: "Did you watch the match on Saturday?"
B: "Yes, I went to the (insert name of bar) with (insert name of friend). We had a great time."


A: "Did you see the match on Saturday?"
B: "Yes, I was excellent! We thrashed them this time!"

e. note also that 'see' doesn't tend to occur in progressive / continuous tenses (apart from to see someone as in the case of boyfriend girlfriend, etc: "I'm seeing this really nice girl at the moment.") - which is consistent with it being focussed on result rather that process. 'Look at' and 'watch' are possible in both continuous and simple tenses.

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For see, look, and watch, it all depends on the intentions of the person who is seeing, looking, or watching. Seeing is visually perceiving something, not really noticing it. "Do you see the bunny?"
Looking is the physical act of directing your gaze or focus on an object. "Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!" It often involves head movement and eye movement. However, to "look at" basically means the same thing, but you add "at" to make it transitive, like "see," only "looking at" is an action and "seeing" is not.
To watch means to see or look at something for a long time. It means to stare and take note of every movement. If you're "watching a football game," you're tracking the score and the movements of the players. You're making sure to take note of changes and developments. To watch is very active and usually takes a long time, or is ongoing.

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1. I assume MINUTE is a typing error that should be MINUTES. MUST in this context suggests to me a) some sort of emergency, e.g. a plane running out of fuel, in which case the plane has no alternative but to land or possibly even b) an expression of impatience, as if a plane were circling, waiting to land, and someone was complaining that it was taking so long.

2. HE CAN SEEM SO SANE most easily suggests someone who is apparently insane or unreasonable in some way, and someone else is remarking that at certain times he can appear reasonable or sane, e.g. "He's crazy!" [Response] "But he can seem so sane."

3. This is a HUGE question to which I couldn't even begin to do justice without some more information. A full survey of the semantic range of each word would probably take extensive research, unless you have in mind just one particular context.

4. The phrasing suggests someone on the phone, listening to the ringing over a period of time, e.g. a few seconds or a few minutes, and no one answering.

All the phrases you give are highly abstract and capable of quite diverse meanings depending on the context.

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Dear Dave Rattigan

your explanations are very easy to follow.
I really appreciate your kindness.

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An attempt at look, see, and watch (at least in regards to viewing something):

"See" is what happens when your eyes perceive an image.

"Look" is to intentionally fix your eyes upon something.

"Watch" is the easiest; it means to intently look at something.

"Did you see the dog?" -- There was a dog, did you notice it?

"Did you look at the dog?" -- You saw the dog, but did you notice anything about it?

"Did you watch the dog?" -- Did you pay attention to what the dog was doing?

Of course there's overlap and with emphasis "see" could mean "watch", but generally "see" just happens, "look" is intentional, and "watch" is prolonged and careful.

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1. For some reason, it is necessary that the plane land in a few minutes. The speaker does not control the circumstance that is forcing the landing. Also, "must X" is somewhat formal, and so very strong -- "has to" would be weaker.

2. He is insane, but sometimes he seems sane.

3. Look: To direct one's gaze. It is possible to look toward something, but not see it.
See: To sense with one's eyes.
Watch: To look at something and see it for a period of time. You can watch something without really being interested (like TV).

4. I don't know what you mean by "rang straight". "Can/could + feeling verb" can either mean for an instant, or for a while.

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Thank you, The Tensor.
In other words about No.4, what is the difference between "He could hear the phone ringing on the other end but no one answered." and "He heard the phone ringing on the other end but no one answered."? In fact, this is a passage of Agatha Christie's novel. And I would like to find out why Agatha Christie used "could" in the sentence.

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Thanks, IngisKahn.

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I would like to suggest an alternative to #1. While the option that there is an emergency is the most probable, the first thing that came to my mind is that the speaker has been on a really long flight and is getting frustrated. Basically it's a complaint taht the plane hasn't arrived yet.

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The definitions of look, see and watch given are potentially misleading. They are all words with extensive semantic ranges.

"To see a movie", for example, is very common usage. "Did you see that?" could mean entirely different things depending upon, for example, whether you were referring to a TV show (which would mean, "Did you watch it?") or a passing car (meaning, "Did you happen to notice it?").

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