I do realise we tend to use glance at something and to catch a glimpse of, but many dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster, suggest that the latter can also function as a verb. When it does, does it have the meaning as the former?

intransitive verb

  1. archaic : glimmer
  2. : to look briefly · glimpsed at the letter and then threw it aside

transitive verb : to get a brief look at · glimpsed him as he sped by in his car


I feel this definition suggests it indirectly as well: http://www.english-for-students.com/difference-between-glimpse-and-glance.html

What do you think?

  • 11
    To glance is deliberate, active; to glimpse is inadvertent, passive. You don't choose to glimpse something (hence the "catch") part. To glance is a deliberate choice: to look at something furtively.
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 15, 2018 at 18:11
  • How can they be interchangeable when one is transitive (takes a direct object) and the other is intransitive? Can you glance something? Can you glimpse at something?
    – bof
    Jan 15, 2018 at 19:08
  • 1
    @DavidK The whole hope and catch are put there precisely because the astronomers are framing the ability to see Plant 9 as not within their control. It’s metaphorically “within Planet 9’s control”, if it “deigns to make an appearance in a way accessible to their instruments”. No, that headline underscores the intentionally thesis, as opposed to eroding it.
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 16, 2018 at 13:37
  • 1
    @DavidK Yes, agreed. And the corpus evidence agrees with us that that’s a rare formulation compared to the “unintentional” or “uncertain” usages. Plus OP’s own link to English-for-students.com makes the same point in greater detail.
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 16, 2018 at 14:25
  • 1
    A simple example: With a brief glance (n) at the night sky, you are unlikely to glimpse (v) a shooting star. But if you stare at the night sky for a long time, you might very well catch a glimpse (n) of one -- unless you are unlucky enough to glance (v) away at just the wrong moment!
    – Brian Lacy
    Feb 10, 2018 at 0:19

5 Answers 5


They both carry the meaning of brevity, but for different, perhaps opposite, reasons.

"I strained and stared, and finally glimpsed my hero through the throng."

Here the speaker is trying nonstop to see. The brief viewing was brief because of external circumstances -- the crowd parting for a moment.

"I sensed I was being followed, and a glance in the rear view mirror confirmed it."

Here the speaker chose to look briefly. Again the viewing was brief, but for reasons wholly under the control of the one looking.


No glimpse and glance are not interchangeable as verbs, but they share close similarity in meaning.


As you can see from the following definitions glimpse means to see (an object) briefly


1) See or perceive briefly or partially.

"he glimpsed a figure standing in the shade".

See or perceive briefly.


To see something or someone for a very short time or only partly:

"We glimpsed the ruined abbey from the windows of the train."

See... for a very short time

M-W Learner's Dictionary

To look at or see (something or someone) for a very short time.

"We glimpsed him through the window as his car sped past."

— sometimes used figuratively

"The book allows us to glimpse the future of the computer industry."

To look at... for a very short time

Etymology (etymonline):

glimpse (v.)

...From mid-15c. as "to glance with the eyes;" from 1779 as "catch a quick view." Related: Glimpsed; glimpsing.

Catch a quick view.


Glance also carries the meaning of spying something briefly :


1) No object, with adverbial of direction Take a brief or hurried look.

"Ginny glanced at her watch"

A brief... look.


1) [ I usually + adv/prep ] to give a quick short look:

She glanced around/round the room to see who was there. He glanced up from his book as I passed. Could you glance over/through this letter and see if it's alright?

A quick short look.

M-W Learner's Dictionary

1) always followed by an adverb or preposition : to look at someone or something very quickly

"Glancing down she noticed her shoe was untied".

"I glanced at my watch".

"He sat quietly, glancing through a magazine."

"She glanced up from her book when he entered the room."

To look at very quickly.

Etymology (Etymonline)

...Sense of "look quickly" (first recorded 1580s) probably was by influence of Middle English glenten "look askance" (see glint (v.)), which also could account for the -n-. Related: Glanced; glancing.

Look quickly.

The two words then as you can see from the above definitions are virtually synonymous.

However there are two key differences.


Glimpse takes an object whereas glance does not. Glance is used with the adverbial of direction.

You can't glance a sunset you glance towards a sunset (i.e. in the direction of the sunset), but you can glimpse a sunset.

This is the reason the words are not interchangeable as verbs.


The second difference is expressed in the definitions of glimpse from OLD and Cambridge.

If you check these definitions above you will see there is an extra meaning attached in both definitions.

OLD - "See.... partially". Cambridge - "See... only partly".

If you want to express the idea that someone caught sight of an object glimpse would be the natural choice. If you want to express that someone looked in the direction of an object briefly glance is the natural choice.

If you want to express the idea that the brief look meant they only partially saw the object, then glimpse is definitely the better word to use!


From commentary to this answer and the original question, it is clear that many users feel there is a distinction with regards the intention of the person looking when they glimpse or glance.

With glance carrying the quality of intention, and glimpse being an unintentional act. While I personally don't agree with this view, given the number of people here that do, I think it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the viewpoint here in this answer.

  • 2
    This answer is well-presented and well-researched. And I think it's very useful to underscore that one verb is transitive and the other isn't. But I can't yet upvote it, because I think it misses the critical difference between the words (which explains in part the difference in their transitivity), which I tried to capture briefly in an earlier comment. I think without centering that difference in the answer, it's misleading.
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 15, 2018 at 20:03
  • Thanks for the comments @DanBron (both of them!) I did consider what you wrote in your comments, but found I disagreed to some extent which is why I didn't mention the sense of intention you addressed. I did find myself initially agreeing with what you said, glimpse has an air of accident about it, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought glimpse can also have marked intention - e.g. google.co.uk/search?tbm=bks&hl=en&q=%22glimpsed+at%22 ("I glimpsed at my watch"). Of course happy to update the answer, if there is some source which might cite this intentional quality!
    – Gary
    Jan 15, 2018 at 20:10
  • 1
    I think this is a matter of pragmatics or usage, not necessarily dictionary definitions. For example, compare the nGrams of glance/glanced at vs glimpse/glimpsed at: bit.ly/2Ddi4TD . The former have very healthy collocations, whereas the latter is a flat line which hovers just above zero. A quick COCA search corroborates these relative frequencies as well: corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=62630425 . But if you want a more explicit reference, OP's link to "difference between" makes materially the same observation (but using more words): bit.ly/2r92Tp5 .
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 15, 2018 at 20:18
  • You glance at things that you were previously aware of. You glimpse things that you were not previously aware of.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 15, 2018 at 22:13
  • 1
    I think it is possible to glimpse something intentionally (perhaps by glancing in its direction). But I do think there is a significant difference in meaning, similar to the the difference between look and see: one implies intent, while the other neither implies nor absolutely rules out intent.
    – David K
    Jan 16, 2018 at 3:37

A glimpse is to get to look at something for only a moment. For example, is a celebrity comes to your city, you might want to get a glimpse at them

A glance is to momentarily look at something momentarily before looking away. An example of this is when you glance at someone or something that captures your attention for a second.

Hope this helps!

  • This makes intuitive sense to me. Any source to cite for this?
    – vidget
    Mar 5, 2018 at 20:30

Are 'glimpse' and 'glance' interchangeable as verbs?

According to Webster's (c.1959, without Merriam), glimpse as a verb may be either transitive:

to catch a glimpse of; to see momentarily and incompletely; to have a quick view of...

...or intransitive:

glimpse; glimpsed (glimst) past tense or past participle; glimpsing present participle.

  1. to appear by glimpses (Archaic or Poetic)
  2. to glance; to look or see quickly

[Middle English glimsen, from glim; Anglo Saxon gleomu meaning "brightness"]

The same source states that glance as a verb may also be either transitive (which meaning is entirely irrelevant to the question, as it is completely irrelevant to the meaning of glimpse as a verb)... or intransitive:

  1. to look with a sudden, rapid directing of the eye; to snatch a momentary or hasty view

[Old French glacier meaning "to slide or slip"]

In conclusion, while glance and glimpse differ in origin, it is obvious that in modern English the two are interchangeable when used as intransitive verbs. In fact, the very definition of glimpse is to glance or to look quickly, while the corresponding definition of glance is to look suddenly, rapidly, or hastily.


"You glance at things that you were previously aware of" What about the following scenario? "While looking in the antique shop for a suitable painting for the set of our play, I recognised at a glance that the battered looking chair in the corner..." No previous awareness there.

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