Confusing Words with Similar Meanings 「似た意味の間違いやすい単語」

Confusing Words with Similar Meanings 「似た意味の間違いやすい単語」

Hello this is Simon,

Just recently, I got asked by two different students about English words that have very similar meanings. One asked me about the differences between “look”, “see”, and “watch”. The other asked about “tell”, “say”, “speak”, and “talk”. These are words that people often get confused, and I get asked about from time to time, so I thought they would be worth writing about this time.

Tell / Say / Talk / Speak


To “tell” means to give information to somebody through speaking or writing. You can “tell” someone, “tell” someone something, or “tell” someone “about” something:
  • I told him.
  • I told her my name.
  • I told my mother about my school trip.
It can be used for commands:
  • I told Bob to get me a drink.
It can be used for both direct speech and for indirect speech:
  • I told Anne, “Don’t go.
  • I told Anne not to go.


To “say” means to pronounce words to express thoughts, opinions, suggestions, greetings etc. You can “say” something, or “say” something “to” someone:
  • I said, “Good morning!”
  • I said, “Goodbye” to her.
It can be used for both direct speech and for indirect speech:
  • I said his name.
  • I said “Tom!”


To “talk” usually involves two or more people exchanging or sharing information. You “talk to” someone, “talk about” something, or “talk to” someone “about” something:
  • I talked to him.
  • We talked about the problem.
  • She talked to me about her family.


To “speak” means the same as to “talk”, but it is often used to show one-way communication. It is also often for more serious or formal situations. You “speak to” someone, “speak about” something, or “speak to” someone “about” something:
  • I spoke to Jim.
  • He spoke about the issue.
  • She spoke to me about my performance at work.
You can also “speak” a language, or “speak in” a language:
  • He spoke English.
  • We spoke in French.
  • She spoke Japanese to me.
  • Greta spoke to me in German.

Look / See / Watch


To “look” means to point your eyes in the direction of something. It is similar to pointing at something with your fingers. We usually look at things that aren’t moving:
  • I looked at the paintings.
  • We looked at the sprawling landscape.
  • Look at the cherry blossoms!


To “see” means for an image to enter your eyes. It is often something unexpected:
  • He saw a snake in his garden.
  • I saw my old classmate at the station.
  • We saw a shooting star.


To “watch” means to look at something that is moving or changing, and focus or concentrate on it:
  • I watched a movie
  • They watched the sun rise.
  • Let’s watch the World Cup tonight.

Here is an example using all three: “I looked at the mountains, and saw some wild horses. I watched them running for a few minutes.”

After I explained this the student seemed to understand, but then asked “What about ‘I watched a movie’, or ‘I saw a movie’? I have heard both of these used.”
“See” actually has one special use, and that is to go somewhere and watch something such as a movie, concert, musical, opera etc. So, if you ask a friend, “What did you do on Saturday?” and they answer, “I saw a movie.” it means they went to a cinema. If they say, “I watched a movie.”, it means they watched a DVD or movie on TV at home (or a friend’s house).

I then got asked, “What about people? Do we watch people when we talk to them?” The answer is no. When we talk to people we are not trying to take in visual information about them, we are simply pointing our eyes at their eyes to show we are listening to them. Although, admittedly as a child when my mother used to tell me off, I would sometimes “watch her”. If it was a particularly long lecture, part way through I would zone out and stop listening. I would still “look” at her face, but I would also “watch” her mouth move and think to myself, “Mouths are funny looking, things aren’t they.”

Listen / Hear


To “hear” means for sound to enter your ears. It is similar to “see” except we do it with our ears. It is also often something unexpected:
  • I heard a noise.
  • I hear a dog barking.
  • We heard an argument.


To “listen” means to focus and concentrate on the sound of something. It is similar to “watch” except we do it with our ears:
  • He listened to a CD.
  • She listened to her mother.
  • I’m listening to the radio.
  • I listened to the birds singing.

If someone is not paying attention to what we are saying, then they are “not listening”. You might even say “Listen!” when you want to get their attention. You can “hear” two people arguing loudly, and if you want to know what they arguing about, you might then try to “listen to” what they are saying. If someone is saying something you don’t like, you might say, “I don’t want to hear that!”

If you “listen” to someone and you can “hear” their voice, but you can’t “hear” every word clearly, then you can’t “catch” everything they say. “I listened to his explanation. He spoke in a loud voice, so I could hear him well. But, he spoke very quickly so I couldn’t catch everything he said.”

That’s all for now. I hope this is helpful.
See you next month!


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Hello! My name is Simon. I am from New Zealand, and have been living and teaching English in Japan since 1999. My hobbies include movies, playing the guitar, gardening and hiking.