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Are there any significant structural or semantic differences between seem, appear and look in the sense of "to give the impression of being or doing something"?

  • She looks unhappy.
  • He seems angry.
  • They appear (to be) contented.
  • It looks as if it's going to rain again.
  • It looks like we're going home without a suntan.
  • It seems as if they're no longer in love.
  • It seems like she'll never agree to a divorce.
  • They appear to have run away from home. They cannot be traced.
  • I seem to have lost my way. Can you help me?
  • It seems to be some kind of jellyfish. Do not go near it.
  • They appear not to be at home. Nobody's answering.
  • They do not appear to be at home. No one's answering.
  • It seems that I may have made a mistake in believing you did this.
  • It appears that you may be quite innocent of any crime.
  • It looks as if/like you won't go to prison after all.
  • It seems a shame that we can't take Kevin on holiday with us.
  • It doesn't seem like a good idea to leave him here by himself.
  • It seems ridiculous that he has to stay here to look after the cat.
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3 Answers 3

There is a semantic difference between look/appear and seem:

One should use look or appear when describing an observable condition - e.g.: Rhonda looks sad - the example implies that there is some observable state or behavior that supports the statement (Rhonda may have tears rolling down her cheeks, for example).

One should use seem to describe a perceived condition - e.g.: Rhonda seems sad - the example implies that the person making the statement has a perception regarding the condition of the subject.

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+1 for the nuanced idea that to seem is to be seen or perceived as. –  Pete Wilson Apr 19 '11 at 13:46
    
So it seems that "seem" does have a broader meaning than "look like", right? Like, um, "It looks as if it's going to rain" is quite the same as "It seems to rain". –  ymfoi May 2 '13 at 3:04
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To my ear, "seem" and "appear" are interchangeable in both syntax and semantics: they can take either an adjective phrase ("seemed very friendly") or a non-finite verb phrase ("seemed to want to go home").

"Look" is similar, but for most people cannot take a verb phrase (though I think it could formerly and perhaps still in dialect).

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The meaning of look with a verb phrase is quite different: look to marry well. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 19 '11 at 14:20
    
The description you give doesn't cover all the examples in the question; some of those are clauses set off by that. Also seem sometimes takes a noun phrase (He seems a nice enough guy). Maybe look can too (? I looked a complete fool) but not in American English. Appear can't. Also: judging from the examples, the question is at least partly about the construction where a dummy it stands in as subject for a postposed subordinate clause. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 19 '11 at 14:30
    
True; I over-simplified. –  Colin Fine Apr 20 '11 at 9:47
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Indeed, there is some difference between appear and seem - see, for example, section 5.5. in The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. I'm not going to write about morphosyntactic differences between 'appear' and 'seem' (can't seem, seem like etc.)- you can easily find it in any good dictionary or usage guide, e.g. ldoceonline or dictionary.cambridge.org or learnersdictionary.com.

I'll comment on the semantic difference between these verbs, obviously excluding appear used in the sense of come into existence; come into sight (as in "He appeared out of nowhere."). The authors of the MW Dictionary of Synonyms acknowledge that these verbs are often used interchangeably with "no apparent difference in meaning." However, they remark that "even in such phrases seem suggests an opinion based on subjective impressions and personal reaction rather than objective signs." The verb appear, on the other hand, they argue, may imply "that the opinion is based on a general visual impression" (like the verb look) but it "sometimes suggests a distorted impression such as can be produced by an optical illusion, a restricted point of view, or another's dissembling" (p. 719).

The authors of the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus put it really nicely:

Seem is often used to make what you say about your thoughts, feelings or actions less forceful or to suggest that sth is true when you are not certain or when you want to be polite.

Appear can also suggest that you, or the person you are speaking to, does not quite believe that sb/sth really is as they seem, as in It would appear that this was a major problem (=although I don't really understand why it should be). It can also be used, like seem, when you are not certain about sth or don't want to accuse sb too directly of doing sth. wrong. Apresjan et al. 1979 argue that the difference between ‘appear’ and ‘seem’ is in where uncertainty comes from. With ‘seem’, that uncertainty comes from the observer/experiencer. With ‘appear’, that uncertainty is caused by the properties/traits of the observed person or thing, and may imply an attempt to deceive.

For example, “tried to appear” used with an adjective is much more common than “tried to seem”:

BNC

tried to appear ADJ – 7 instances

tried to seem ADJ – 0 instances

Anne tried to appear cheerful when she said goodnight to her mother but she was glad to go to bed to try to sort out her thoughts. (G16 A nest of singing birds. Murphy, E. London: Headline Book Publishing plc, 1993.)

COCA

tried to appear ADJ – 35 instances

tried to seem ADJ – 8 instances

or have a look at Google Ngrams

Apresjan et al. 1979 also argue that in cases when you deal with an object or a situation (not a person) and when your impression of that object or situation is based on their internal characteristics (i.e. not their physical properties that can be perceived by our senses), the above-described semantic difference is neutralized.

Practically all well-researched dictionaries and corpus-based grammars mention that appear is less common than seem and that appear sounds (slightly) more formal, cf. the following note in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English:

Register In written English, people often prefer to use appear rather than seem, because it is more formal: It appears that the man had been murdered. As a side note, not being a big fan of prescriptivism, I'd like to quote Bryan Garner:

"The phrase it would appear is invariably inferior to it appears or it seems."

Why he thinks that is a mystery to me.

P.S. The most comprehensive explanation I've ever seen - it takes almost four pages, much more detailed than the one in the MW Dictionary of Synonyms - can be found here (caveat: it's in Russian)

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