What’s the difference between listen and hear in English?
For many people learning English, listen and hear are two very confusing verbs! In this post I will explain the difference between the two verbs, and when you can use them.
Take a look at these sentences:
I was listening to the radio when I heard the phone ring.
I’m listening but I can’t hear you!
Shhh! Listen! Did you hear that? I think I heard a noise.
Can you see the difference?
- to pay attention to the sounds coming into your ears
- to concentrate on a sound
- to make an effort to hear someone or something
- to pay attention to someone or something that you can hear
Are you listening to me?
= Are you paying attention to what I am saying? Are you paying attention to me?
Listen! = Pay attention!
We listened carefully to the president’s speech.
My lawyer did all the talking, I just sat and listened.
*Remember: when listen has an object, use to – you listen TO someone or something:
I like listening TO music!
I’m listening TO you! [NOT I’m listen you]
Listen TO me! [NOT Listen me!]
Do you like to listen to music? [NOT Do you like listen music?]
- to be aware of OR to notice sounds coming through your ears (BUT you are not paying attention to the sounds)
You cannot control if you can hear the sound. You can control if you listen to the sound. Your ear will hear the sound, whether you want to or not! You can decide if you want to listen to the sound.
Can you hear me?
= Is my voice loud enough? Can you hear me making a sound/a noise?
I heard a noise outside.
My grandmother is getting old. She can’t hear very well.
What did you say? I can’t hear you. You’ll have to speak up.
*Hear is NOT used in a continuous tense. Instead, use can hear:
I can hear you! [NOT I am hearing you.]
I couldn’t hear you! [NOT I am not hearing you.]
More Uses of Hear
*Listen CANNOT be used in these situations.
1. Hear can also be used to talk about the result of listening. When you want to talk about something you experienced or listened to:
I hear what you’re saying but I don’t agree with you.
= I’ve just finished listening to you.
I heard a great song on the radio this morning.
= I was listening to the radio this morning
I heard the choir sing at Roy Thompson Hall last year.
= Last year I went to Roy Thompson Hall and I listened to the choir sing.
You haven’t heard a word I’ve said!
2. To hear from someone
Have you heard from Jeff? He said he’d call today.
“Hi, Mary! It’s nice to hear from you! We haven’t talked in such a long time.”
I got a card from Jen today. It was nice to hear from her.
3. Hear can also be used to express that you have been told or learned (of) something, like news.
I’ll let you know if I hear anything.
Did you hear the news yesterday? Ken was in a car accident.
*When talking about news that you have heard, read, or seen on TV, you can use hear with a that clause [hear in the present tense]:
I hear (that) you’re expecting a baby.
I hear (that) you’ve bought a new house.
I hear (that) John was fired yesterday.