Hear - listen

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The two verbs 'to hear' and 'to listen' are similar in their meanings. Both are to do with perceiving sounds, through our ears. The difference is subtle, and causes difficulty to some non-native speakers of English; to most native speakers, there is no problem.

  • 'To hear' is the more receptive word: it means 'to perceive sound'. In the middle of a lesson, all the students may hear a police car, or some music; but they should not listen to it too much. We also use hear to mean 'I was made aware of', 'I was told': "I heard that the Professor has resigned"; "everyone who was adult at that time knows where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot."
  • The students should be listening to their teacher - that is, much more actively paying attention to what the teacher is saying. They should be concentrating their powers of hearing on the lesson.

Both these verbs can be applied to both sounds ("I hear the hum of machinery"; "I listen to music") and to their originators (" I hear you" and "I listen to my students"). Listening is positive, and takes some effort; hearing just happens, if you are awake (and sometimes we hear noises even in our sleep: "I must have heard the alarm, for it entered my dream"). Swan gives the example "I heard them talking in the next room, but I didn't really listen to what they were saying."

In usage, there is a distinction between hearing a concert and listening to it. If you want to talk of an experience in the past, use 'hear': "I heard Martin Luther King speak once." If you are thinking of your own conscious attempts to understand him, say "I was listening with the closest attention."

Grammatical note #1: you hear [a sound] (this is a Direct Object); but you listen to [a sound} (this is the Complement to a prepositional verb). Listen is not a transitive verb: you cannot (grammatically) "listen the teacher
As I type, I hear a dog barking. I am trying not to listen to it. In the intransitive usage (when there is no sound ('Object')) then use listen with no preposition: "The father told his children to listen.")
Grammatical note #2: hear is rarely used in progressive tenses: "I am listening to you" is good English, but not "I am hearing you".


You may also want to go to hear (irregular verb)