I often hear the term to look for it:

"I have studied symbolism in fine arts for years, and now I see symbolism in everything. I just can't stop myself after I learned how to look for it."

Feel for it is also frequently used:

"Jimmy was a great guitar player. He didn't even think while playing; his guitar functioned like an extension to his arms. He just had this natural feel for it."

It also works for listening, although it sounds a bit odd:

"This city is teeming with songbirds, but their chirps are drowned by the ambiance. You might be able to catch a few seconds here and there if you listen for it."

But how about for smelling?:

"My father knows a chef whose sense of smell is so good that he can step into the farmers market and locate the perfect onion by sticking his nose in the air to smell for it."

For listening it sounds bit odd, and for smelling it sounds downright wrong to me, but I can't explain why. Are all of the above sentences well-formed English sentences?

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    Your feel example is a completely different usage (the one corresponding to the look example would be, say, "He couldn't see where he dropped his plectrum on the dimly-lit stage, so he just had to feel for it"). Note that to smell for something (to locate it using the sense of smell) isn't normal English. You might do better with to sniff something out, but this may have unwanted idiomatic/figurative connotations. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 15:17
  • Thanks for pointing out the difference in the feel example; I failed to notice the difference. I'll leave it like that so that I don't deprive your comment of its context. Sniff something out would also work, and I'm wondering why smell cannot be used in this way as look, feel and possibly listen can.
    – leifericf
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 15:33
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    The idiom is to follow your nose: "he can locate the perfect onion by just following his nose"
    – Jim
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 16:47
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    I have encountered "smell for it" used in this way, though I can't recall precisely where. It's not wrong, just uncommon, I think.
    – DrRandy
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 19:48
  • @Jim I've heard "follow your nose" with the alternative meaning of "proceed straight ahead," having nothing to do with smelling or sniffing. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 23:21

1 Answer 1


The words you will hear more often are along the lines of sniff it out.

The idiom sniff out is defined as (from The Free Dictionary):

To perceive or detect someone or something by or as if by sniffing:
The dogs sniffed out the trail through the snow.
The detectives sniffed the plot out and arrested the criminals.

A similar idiom is nose out, having essentially the same meaning in this context. (It can also mean to prevail over someone by a small margin.)

  • Because of the strong idiomatic figurative associations (as per your detectives example), I think it's actually quite common to sidestep the issue and simply say something like locate [it] by [sense of] smell. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 15:27

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