Apologies if this has already been answered but I couldn't find a question addressing this.

I had a thought about an expression I hear used frequently, in that myself and many others I know use the term "hear" or "heard" in reference to written information that was never conveyed audibly.

For instance, I may read an interesting fact in an online article and later tell it to someone else as "I heard that..." as opposed to "I read that..." or "I saw that..."

I'm wondering how one would classify this usage of the term or literary device. In my mind the use of the term "heard" implies that the information was perceived audibly.

My thoughts are:

  • This could be considered a form of metaphor (we are using "heard" in a context it is not literally applicable)
  • This meaning/interpretation of heard comes under the definition of the word, colloquially or otherwise
  • This is simply erroneous; it's just incorrect to use the word "heard" in this context
  • This is some other kind of literary device, perhaps something like personification (we are attributing the quality of spoken word to the information)
  • This is a bad 'translation' of the term used correctly in a slightly different context (for example, if I read an interesting fact and wanted to enquire if someone else knew about it already, I might ask them "did you hear that...", which is perfectly valid as even though I only read the information someone else may have heard it eg. via word of mouth")

I am hoping someone more knowledgable than I can clarify, and if applicable point me towards the correct nomenclature for this kind of thing.

  • 1
    Look at sense 2 of Merriam-Webster's intransitive definition of hear. Although other senses specify an auditory context, that one does not. In that sense, it is simply a synonym for "learn." Aug 21, 2018 at 3:45
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    Have you looked up the word in a good dictionary?
    – Kris
    Aug 21, 2018 at 8:27
  • If either of you post this as an answer I'd be happy to accept it. After looking myself I arrived at the same conclusion ("hear" does not necessarily imply literally audible)
    – Segolia
    Aug 26, 2018 at 23:10

1 Answer 1


You've found a nice subtlety in the language. In English, the sense of sight is used interchangeably with gaining knowledge/information. "I see." is commonly used to mean "I understand." "When you look at it that way." = "When you think about it that way."

However, as you point out, for gaining information, people commonly use "I hear that they are getting married." = "I have information which indicates that they are getting married.". It is weaker than "see". To "hear" something in the sense of information is to have been exposed to it, but not necessarily believe/internalize it.

"I see that that they are getting married." Implies that you have some strong evidence, and you might spend your money to buy a gift. "I hear that they are getting married." Is a way of saying that you still have some doubt. You're probably not going to spend your money on a gift just yet. It also could mean that the event is of little importance to you so even though you believe it, you haven't even invested the energy to really verify.

"I saw in the newspaper yesterday that they are building a new school." This lets the other person know that you read the paper, and indicates that you believe what you read. You have some personal investment in the topic.

"I read in the newspaper yesterday that they are building a new school." This lets the other person know that you read the paper, and you are passing on the information without judgement.

"I heard in the newspaper yesterday..." No. That's weird. "I've been reading a lot of newspapers. I heard that they are building a new school." This lets the other person know that you somehow pieced together information about a new school. It may have been the topic of one article, or something you pieced together from the general mass of stories. It does indicate that you believe the new school is being built, but there is a sense that you wouldn't be surprised to learn the information is wrong.

If someone says "I heard that person hates kittens.", they are using the word "to hear" as a subconscious indicator that they don't have proof.

To summarize, here is the order of metaphorical senses in English:

  • to see => to believe
  • to hear => to have information
  • to feel => to extrapolate from indirect data
  • to smell => to have an intuitive notion. Usually with a negative conotation.
  • to taste => ? Not used to indicate knowledge/information.
  • Source(s)? Or is that an opinion?
    – Kris
    Aug 21, 2018 at 8:27

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