What is the difference between look at and see? For example:

  • Can I look at it?
    Can I see it?
  • Let's go to look at him.
    Let's go to see him.
  • 1
    Look at this! See?
    – RegDwigнt
    May 16, 2012 at 9:22
  • 4
    The proposed "standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information" is not designed to find, and in fact does not say a thing about the difference between look and see. The difference is not a simple one and has to do with syntax, not with the meaning, pronunciation, or etymology, which is all dictionaries are good for. You can't look up grammar in a dictionary. May 16, 2012 at 13:27
  • 2
    I have been finding the information about this before asking but it's not clear. That's why I asked here. I just want to use correct sentense and still don't get it. @JohnLawler Thanks for your comment.
    – Kid123
    May 16, 2012 at 17:11
  • oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/see or ldoceonline.com/dictionary/see_1 (scroll down to "word choice"). Collins COBUILD is also really good mycobuild.com/free-search.aspx
    – Alex B.
    Jun 1, 2012 at 0:23

1 Answer 1


If someone says "I have a book of photographs by Diane Arbus", and you respond with "Can I see it?" or "Can I look at it?", there is no difference in meaning. "Look at" and "see" in this case mean the same thing: "I want to view/inspect the photographs/book."

If someone says, for example, "Did you want to speak to John? He's at Willie's Bar and Grill right now", and you say "Let's go (to) see him", it means "Let's go to Willie's Bar and Grill to visit John and talk with him", but if you say "Let's go to look at him", it means "Let's go to Willie's Bar and Grill and view/stare at/inspect John". John is being considered a person in the first sentence but an object (like a book of photographs or a statue) in the second.

In some languages, one verb is used for "look", "read", and "see" (Chinese speakers in Taiwan, for example, use the verb "kàn" (看) for all three even though there are three different verbs for those three English words. What "kàn" means in a particular sentence, though, depends on the context and what question it answers.

In English, "looking at a book", "seeing a book", and "reading a book" have three different meanings. To "look at" means to "inspect/view", to "see" means to "perceive with the eyes", and to "read" means to look at and (try to) "understand the words in the book" (the content/meaning).

  • No, you respond with “May I please see it?”, unless you don’t mind being rude.
    – tchrist
    Jun 1, 2012 at 0:36

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