My teacher introduced the quote:

  1. You look but you don’t see. You hear but you don’t listen.

But I also saw books saying:

  1. You look but you don’t see. You listen but you don’t hear.

So which one is correct? I am between a rock and a hard place.

In terms of grammar, I think the second one is right because it is more parallel as look and listen are both intransitive while see and hear are both transitive.

But the first one also sounds reasonable to me as listen implies the person is doing the action intentionally. You can hear a foreign language without knowing it but you can only listen to a foreign language if you understand it, right?

  • 6
    These are both annoying turns of phrase in that either can work fine. There's no inherent hierarchy of meaning between the two terms. Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 10:29
  • 1
    You can listen to rap music or foreign song without understanding a single word in the lyrics. I don't think distinguishing "listen" from "hear" is as meaningful as distinguishing "see" from "look".
    – user140086
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 10:55
  • 2
    To me, listen and look are direct actions, while see and hear are more passive. You can choose to listen or look at something, but you can't choose to see or hear it.
    – Irhala
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 12:30
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    This cannot possibly be about grammar: the grammar is identical.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 13:58
  • 1
    See also listen/hear/read/understand
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 18:55

7 Answers 7


Google defines hear as "perceive with the ear the sound made by (someone or something)" and listen as "give one's attention to a sound".

If someone is not paying attention in class, then they can still hear the teacher (and will probably be aware if they stop talking), but they are not listening to the teacher (and so cannot summarise what they were talking about).

It's the "paying attention" element that means that "You hear but don't listen" is correct. As Irhala points out in the comments, if you "You listen but don't hear", it's because you are trying to pay attention to a sound that just isn't there.

  • 2
    I'd add that I think the correct version of the saying is "you listen but you don't hear", because of the similarity with look/see and that it probably means "you're trying without realizing you don't have what it takes (yet)". Oh, and thanks for the credit.
    – Irhala
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 15:40
  • 2
    Listening can also mean “heeding advice or instructions”. So I might hear the teacher, I might have understood the teacher, but I might have chosen to ignore the teacher. In that case when thing go wrong she will say. “I told you but you didn’t listen.”
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 15:44
  • @Irhala and Jim - Yes, both comments add valid nuances to the answer, thanks.
    – JonLarby
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 15:47
  • but in that case they are "seeing" the teacher, but not looking, so only the second sentence makes sense. "looking", like "listening", is active. "seeing" and "hearing" is the consequence.
    – njzk2
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 3:31
  • I think taking the literal meaning, "you hear but you don't listen" would be right. However, "you listen but you don't hear" much more accurately matches the structure of "you look but you don't see". "You listen but you don't hear" could definitely mean something like "you are listening (to the surface of what I'm saying), but you don't hear (what I actually mean)".
    – daboross
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 8:10

There are various ways of saying this quote. My understanding is that it comes from the Bible. In Matthew 13:13 Jesus said, according to the International Standard Version:

"That's why I speak to them in parables, because 'they look but don't see, and they listen but don't hear or understand.'"

Jesus here was referring to another part of the Bible, Isaiah 6:9. The Bible Hub offers different versions of these verses and a commentary.

  • 8
    It's probably worth mentioning that on the page you link, there's both listen/hear and hear/listen (and hearing/hear) in different translations. I mention this so that people don't incorrectly conclude the quoted version is the "official" version. (It might be worth putting one of the hear/listen versions in your answer as a counterpoint.)
    – R.M.
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 16:04
  • 3
    Very good. I like to go back to the earliest texts to grok these things, and in this case, the Aramaic in Plain English translation uses "see" and "hear" only, and not "look" or "listen". Apparently, the see/look and hear/listen distinction was introduced by a translator.
    – Rich
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 16:10
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    @JuanM - Your job as an answerer is to show; not merely link! Feel free to edit your answer and provide a summary of these different versions. (btw, I'm pleased that you linked to the biblical quote.)
    – Rich
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 16:11
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    @Rich Thank you for your observations. If the answer becomes too extensive, it is sometimes better to provide links for those who want to read more on the subject, especially if the main objective of the answer has been achieved. In this case, the idea was not to offer extensive biblical support, just to point to the probable origin of the phrase: the Bible. The answer provides one example to prove the argument, but anyone who wants to learn more may follow the link. My two cents. :)
    – Juan M
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 16:20
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    @JuanM - Since you answer the question "Which one is correct?" with words to the effect neither, and the text in the link supports that, I think it's worth bringing it up front. :-)
    – Rich
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 17:09

First off, the quote is Biblical in nature, from Matthew 13:13. Please note that precise nuance in the Bible is tricky, since there are dozens of variant translations and the base languages are no longer spoken as they were 2,000 years ago.

Your questions focuses on the difference between 'hear-listen' and 'listen-hear'. Grammatically, it makes no difference. Semantically, it makes a difference.

I disagree with most of the posted answers, which seem to tend towards saying that it should be 'hear-listen'. It should be 'listen-hear', because 'listen' and 'look' can imply seeking/discovery and in that meaning precede 'hear' and 'see'.

As a caveat, this is a tough problem. All four key words here are extremely flexible and broad.

Look - to exercise the power of vision upon; (archaic) to search for; [look for] to search for

See - to perceive by the eye; to grasp something mentally

'Look' includes a directional and seeking attitude, but 'see' does not. What I'm getting at here is that you can look for something you cannot see, but you cannot see for something you cannot look at. The relationship in the sense of discovery/seeking is not reversible.

Now let's look at 'hear' and 'listen'.

Listen - to pay attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc.

Hear - to gain knowledge of by hearing; to perceive or apprehend by the ear

We see the same distinction in seeking and direction here that exists with 'look' and 'see'. That is, you can listen for a sound which you cannot hear, but you cannot hear for (or any other preposition) a sound to which you cannot listen. In fact, the relationship is even stronger here, since the definition of listening shows that you listen "in order to hear".

Therefore, when you are matching 'hear' and 'listen' to 'look' and 'see', 'listen' matches to 'look' and not to 'see'.

links to definitions:

NOTE - I have focused on the definitions which match meaning between the two word pairings. Yes, I know that there are many other meanings of all these words, and that these words are extremely common and flexible in English.


The semantic parallelism between the various kinds of Sense Verbs is usually unnoticeable lexically in the chemical and tactile senses; these sentences all use the same verb in each construction:

  • She tasted/smelled/felt it on purpose. (Volitional agent subject)
  • He tasted/smelled/felt it by accident. (Non-Volitional perceiver subject)
  • They both agreed that it tasted/smelled/felt really weird. (Flip subject)

But sound and vision have more verbs, because we get more information from them. Interestingly, sound -- the medium of language -- distinguishes each of these construction types with a different verb, listen (with a preposition if transitive), hear, and sound. Vision has only two distinctive verbs, look (with a preposition if transitive) and see.

  • She looked at/listened to it on purpose.
  • He saw/heard it by accident.
  • They both agreed that it looked/sounded really weird.

So, for sound and vision only, there is an implicative relation
between the volitional look at/listen to and the perceptual see/hear. That is,

  • P looks at/looked at X entails P sees/saw X
  • P listens to/listened to X entails P hears/heard X

I.e, if you listened to it, you heard it; and if you looked at it, you saw it.
Generally one uses the perceptual verb only if one can't use the volitional one that entails it.

The examples given in the OQ -- You look, but you don't see, for instance -- use intransitive look. That's rather different, because it doesn't necessarily entail see. In context, intransitive look means try to look, which makes sense. Ditto for intransitive listen in You listen, but you don't hear.

And, finally, note that look, listen, see, and hear are not being used literally in these examples. The speaker does not refer to the literal sense of sight or sound, but rather, metaphorically, to thought. For look and see, one of the most prominent metaphorical themes uses light as a metaphor for thought, e.g,

  • She's brilliant, he's pretty bright, they're real stars.

For listen, hear, and sound, the metaphor is simpler -- Thought is Language. Not true, but metaphors never are. Since you can hear something but not understand it, these metaphoric verbs fit nicely into the proverb. It should also be noted that this is not a normal use or meaning for sense verbs, though they do participate in a lot of idioms and strange constructions.

  • "Vision has only two distinctive verbs, look (with a preposition if transitive) and see." Why isn't watch included? Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 13:49

Words have multiple meanings.

  • look (at something) - eyes are directed (at something)
  • look (for something) = actively search (for something)
  • see (something) = eyes register something but no understanding expected
  • see (something) = understand (something) eg "Don't you see?"
  • listen (to something) = actively direct attention to the sound of something to understand
  • hear (something) = perceive a sound but no understanding implied
  • hear (someone) = to register and understand what someone says (informal)

The quote is trying to set up an analogy between perceiving and understanding of sight and hearing. Thinking of this as a puzzle, forming the best two by two comparison where out of all possibilities everything is balanced, we want vision/hearing crossed with not understanding/understanding:

vision with no understanding : vision with understanding :: to hearing with no understanding vs hearing with understanding

Vision of things with no understanding has to be 'look'. So vision with understanding is see.

Hearing with no understanding of things implied is 'hear'. Hearing with the expectation of understanding is 'listen'.

So the phrase should be 'Look but don't see, hear but don't listen.'

It is confusing because canonically 'see and hear', 'look and listen' are common phrases. But the more common meanings of the terms has see and listen (understanding) against look and hear (no understanding implied).


In contrast to what @JonLarby answered, I think hear also has a connotation of perceiving or understanding the message being communicated, which is why the phrase "I hear you" means "I understand what you are saying," and not just "I acknowledge you made a sound."

In that sense, "You listen but don't hear" would be correct, since it means you are paying attention to what is being said, but you do not fully grasp the meaning.


Both versions are used. Both convey the intended meaning. Any difference in meaning is subtle and, as demonstrated in this topic, will be taken different ways by different people.

As it's a Biblical quote, I suggest you look up Matthew 13:13 in the edition most popular in your community and use that one!

That is, if your version DOES use 'listen' and 'hear'.

The King James version dodges the issue completely: "Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not..."

New International, as so often, over-eggs it and destroys the poetry: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

But neither seem to use 'listen' and 'hear'.

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