I've heard phrases similar to

It was if they wear hearing me but they weren't listening

My first request is what are the common forms of this statement as I've heard some that seem more logical than others.

What precisely does the phrase mean? I believe taken literally it's an oxymoron as most dictionaries define hearing and listening very similarly. From the definitions I've red, listening tends to imply that the sound being heard carries meaning (but don't all sounds?). For example you could say "listen to his instructions to know what to do" but you could also listen to something non-verbal to gain information, for example if you heard a tree come falling down, you know that a tree fell down.

For the over all meaning of the phrase, I can think of a few different meanings and was wondering if any are right or wrong:

  1. The person was perceiving the message but knowingly chose not to comply. e.g. Joe heard Bob tell him to come early but he chose to disregard the request.

  2. The person's capacity to hear is working well but cognitively he is disengaged. e.g. Joe stood in front of Bob while Bob was talking, but Joe's mind was elsewhere.

  3. The person is incapable of interpreting the message. e.g. Joe doesn't speak the language Bob was speaking to him in.

This is what I don't get, in example 3. most people would say Joe was listening to Bob but couldn't understand him. So this seems to show that the phrase in question missuses the word "listen".

TL;DR In a sense I'm asking what the difference is between "hearing" and "listening" and if the quoted phrase is an idiom in the sense it does not logically apply the rule.

  • If you're hearing then the sounds that are being made are reaching your ears, listening connotes that they are actually thinking about the words and their meaning. Your No2 fits quite well. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 6:20
  • @BladorthinTheGrey you can also listen to something that isn't words. For example when you listen to the kettle to know when the water has boiled. Any time you hear something you can infer meaning from it, so doesn't that mean hearing implies listening?
    – Celeritas
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 19:31

3 Answers 3


Hearing is recognizing the presence of sound. You may or may not pay attention. Listening is the recognition of the sound or trying to process the sound and making an attempt to understand it.

In simple terms, when you look at the license/number plate of a vehicle, you visually "hear" the number plate. You may know there are numbers on it, you may recognize the colors, but you do not actually try to process the numbers and letters. When you "listen" to a number you know the letters and numbers in there, you know the color, you may even process the number to mean something that you can connect or relate it to.

In the third example, Joe was paying attention to Bob, but he was simply unable to understand. Hence Listen.

So hear is when you involuntarily sense the sound, Listen is when you sense the sound and pay attention to it.

Hope this answered your question. Sorry if my analogy was misleading or did not make sense. :)

  • +1 for paying attention - hearing is passive, listening is active.
    – John Feltz
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 14:58

To hear ("to perceive with the ear the sound made by (someone or something)" - OED) doesn't necessarily mean compliance or comprehension. On the other hand, to listen ("to give one's attention to a sound") does. I believe your 1st and 2nd examples are correct; the receiver's ears get the sound waves, but the receiver ignores the message conveyed.

I believe hearing can also involve less recognition than listening (as in your 3rd example). For example, "I hear music" just means that I am aware that there is some melodic sound around me. "I listen to music" means that I am more cognitively involved in the activity, perhaps thinking about the lyrics or the way the notes are played.


I can hear you - you are audible.

I hear what you are saying / I hear you - I understand what you are saying.

I am listening - I am trying to make sense of the sounds I can hear.

The OP asks for other versions of -

It was if they wear hearing me but they weren't listening.

The phrase that comes to mind is that

The lights were on but there was no-one at home.

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