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What is the difference between:

You're looking well!

and

You look well!

Assuming that both refer to a specific occasion, what is it that the continuous aspect indicates here? The difference must be subtle I guess.

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    In American English, look well, in any construction, is the opposite of look ill. If you're talking about physical attractiveness instead of health, you say look good. As for the progressive, it doesn't really mean anything different from the simple present here; look is stative, so any use of a progressive is just an emphasis on the compliment. Both (You) look good (tonight) and (You're) looking good (tonight) are common compliments. Of course, as such, they get semifrozen into idiomaticity. – John Lawler May 4 '15 at 16:58
  • Thank you very much. That's exactly what I wanted to know: the progressive makes the compliment more emphatic. – Marina Yegorova May 4 '15 at 17:13
  • Like McDonald's slogan I'm lovin' it. Of course that's McDonald's complimenting itself, so it can afford to be emphatic. – John Lawler May 4 '15 at 17:19
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    Thank you. In some other cases though the progressive seems to stress the ongoing nature of the action as in "I'm understanding now' – Marina Yegorova May 4 '15 at 17:23
  • Yes, that's the active inchoative sense of 'come to understand', which is punctual; that means the process has started. Stativity and activity is implicational as often as not -- often when someone uses a progressive they're referring to an end state of an activity, and you have to imagine the activity. – John Lawler May 4 '15 at 17:32
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Both of those are acceptable English. In essence they are the same, meaning that you are looking healthy. The first is continuous present, which implies an ongoing state, the second is present, which only describes how you look right now. In almost all cases the two can be used interchangeably. An example of when it might be wrong to use the first is when the state is changing - for example you see someone in a poor light and remark "You look ill". Then they turn on a brighter light and you say "You look well now".

The contraction in the first makes it less formal, but "You are looking well" would restore the formality.

(As an aside, beware of "you are looking good" which does not mean the same as "you are looking well")

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  • Yes, I can vouch that in British English too, the two forms are often interchangeable, and mean "you are looking healthy". One or the other form might be selected to emphasise either currentness or habitualness, but (unlike with most other verbs in most situations) people will hardly notice if you don't do so. – Karasinsky Jul 6 '15 at 21:01
  • As a footnote, some Londoners a few years ago used the phrase "to look well" to mean to look attractive, pleasing, satisfying good, or similar, and this could be a applied to a person or to inanimate objects. – Karasinsky Jul 6 '15 at 21:01
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"You look well" kind of sounds imperative. "You are looking well" seems a comparison with a previous state of that person.

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