I encountered a case like this in today's class.

S+ seem/look/feel +adj to describe your feeling or attitude toward sth.


  1. the test feels hard.
  2. the weather seems hot today.

So are feel and seem identical in the above 2 sample?


  1. the man feels bad
  2. the man seems bad

I'm not so sure about these. The 2 example clearly tell different scenarios.

  1. the man feels sorry about something and he regret it or he is just not feeling well.
  2. the man looks like a bad person.

However, if I follow the rule of my book example 1 could also describe that he is a bad person. So I want to ask if I use the sentence: the man feels bad, will it create anambiguous sentence where they don't know the man is a bad guy or just not feeling well? Or the 1st example only have 1 meaning that the man is just feeling sick or regretful?

Thanks for reading.

3 Answers 3


It'd difficult to make exact rules for your example because the significant words -- feel, seem, and bad -- all have a wide range of meanings which vary with context.

While seem usually refers to external impressions, feel usually refers to internal impressions:

She feels tired (= she believes herself to be tired)

She seems tired (= from looking at her I believe she is tired)

However, "feel" can sometimes refer to external impressions. In this case both feel and seem mean the same thing. For example:

This alley feels/seems dangerous. Let's go around. (= from looking at it, I get the impression the alley is dangerous)

The weather feels/seems nice today. (= My impression is that the weather is nice)

Lastly, bad has a very wide range of meanings, from "ill" to "wicked" to "dangerous" to (in slang) "perversely good". This does make certain sentences ambiguous:

He feels bad.

Without further context, I don't know for sure if this means, "He is having sensations that make him believe he is sick or upset," or "Looking at him, my impression is that he is a wicked person." Usually you can judge this from context:

Martha felt bad about not telling the truth, but she had promised to keep George's secrte.

Martha watched the strange man slink down the street and vanish into a narrow doorway. He felt bad to her, like a ferret stalking some hapless mouse.

Remember, ambiguity is often common and natural in any language. Sometimes this is done purposefully to give a sentence multiple meanings, and other times the actual meaning should be obvious from context.

(Edit) Idiomatic use of these verbs requires experience and practice. For example, "The food feels delicious," is not idiomatic, since "to feel" generally refers to sensations that relate to touch. Even in the context of something like:

It feels like we're walking into a trap. Let's get out here.

"feels" relates to the prickling sensation on your skin you get when something seems wrong in your environment, and it makes you fearful or suspicious. If you want to refer to the other senses, use verbs like smells, tastes, sounds, looks etc., "The food looks delicious".

Also, in most cases where there is some ambiguity, one interpretation is generally much more likely than any other interpretation. Of course, this ambiguity can also be used for humorous effect, when one interpretation is assumed while another is meant, as in the most recent Star Wars movie when Luke tells Rey to "reach out" and "feel" the Force.

  • Thanks a lot. I have 1 more question. I came across these while searching for some more example: 1/ the food feels delicious . 2/ the food seems delicious. Do you suppose number 1 is correct? It feels so unatural to me but kindda fit in with the theory. If number 1 is wrong how am i suppose to explain it?
    – Jessi
    Apr 2, 2018 at 16:41
  • @Jessi: If your subject ("the thing") is inanimate, it can't experience/feel anything, so only the give the impression of being sense can apply. If the thing has consciousness (The dog feels angry) we'd nearly always suppose we're talking about its internal state of mind. But it could be ambiguous, as in, for example, The cat feels warm on my lap, where it's unclear whether I'm saying that I feel the cat's warmth, or that the cat is aware of being warm. Apr 2, 2018 at 17:08
  • 1
    I have to disagree about the ambiguity of "the man feels bad." Without some very specific context, that would almost certainly be taken as "the man feels ill" or "the man regrets something he has done" not "the man is wicked"
    – Kevin
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:52
  • @FumbleFingers i dunno about the inanimated subjects can't feel/experience something part. Back then i also believed that ie: the test can't "feel" easy and eyes can't "feel" sore or hot. However coming across natural examples, like, the town feels empty and the the weather feels nice has led me to think otherwise.
    – Jessi
    Apr 2, 2018 at 18:20
  • 1
    @Jessi please see my edit. "Feel" is used with sensations of touch, and not the other senses. So you can say the food looks, smells, or tastes delicious, but if you said it felt delicious it would mean you are touching it and can somehow sense its tastiness with your hands.
    – Andrew
    Apr 3, 2018 at 4:50

The man feels bad

Would always be interpreted as the man himself having a negative emotion or feeling, rather than the speaker thinking that the man is a bad person. This sentence is completely unambiguous.

The man seems bad

Would usually be interpreted as the speaker thinking the man is a bad person/is bad at what he's doing, however it could mean something else depending on context e.g. a nurse saying this would mean the man is in a bad medical state. This sentence is also not very ambiguous, although context is the biggest issue here.

Generally feels is used to express an emotion or feeling not backed by logic, whereas seems sounds more objective. While generally the test seems hard and the test feels hard mean the same thing, if you were doing an easy test but were very nervous it could feel hard but seem easy, although personally I would use is easy if contrasting apparent and actual difficulty.

Generally in English there are many such words, for example: feel, seem, sound, look, appear. Their meanings in relation to each other aren't that well defined, and a test could certainly look easy, sound difficult but feel impossible even though a test isn't something you can really judge visually or through sound.

  • Thanks for your clarification. So is it safe to assume the meaning of these on contexts and their fixed meaming? Ie- he feels bad= always about regret or sickness.
    – Jessi
    Apr 2, 2018 at 16:40
  • 1
    @Jessi There is one specific context where it could be used the other way. Where you are specifying that you don't have a solid reason for thinking that the man is wicked, you are going on instinct or intuition. Example: "I don't trust Bob." "Why not? Did he do something to you?" "I don't know, he just feels bad."
    – Kevin
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:55
  • The man feels bad, yes, means he is not feeling well. That said, one can imagine: "I don't know, John. The guy just feels bad [to me]." It is possible. Meaning: I get the feeling he is a bad man. :)
    – Lambie
    Apr 2, 2018 at 18:56

Typically we use "seems" in cases where we have a rational reason behind our statement, but we recognize that it is an incomplete reason. "Feels" is used when we don't have a rational reason, but we instead have a "gut feel" about something. What can make distinguishing the two difficult is that we often invent "rational" reasons to defend our gut instincts. We can tell the two apart based on how we react to additional information. If we were thinking rationally, additional information might change our opinion. If we were "feeling," additional information usually isn't sufficient.

For example, consider a dialogue on a subway:

P1: That man seems dangerous.
P2: Why do you say that?
P1 He's got his hands in his pockets, and he's looking around like he's worried about getting caught for doing something bad. (This is the rational behind the statement)
P2: Oh, yeah. He's actually an actor. They've been paying him to ride the subway and test to see if the security people are paying attention. (This adds information that P1 didn't have before)
P1: Interesting. That makes sense.

Contrast with:

P1: That man feels dangerous.
P2: Why do you say that?
P1: Well, you know... he just looks it. He's too jumpy looking. And he's got his hands in his pockets. He might have a knife. (This is the rationalization. Really, P1 just felt the man looked dangerous)
P2: Oh, yeah. He's actually an actor. They've been paying him to ride the subway and test to see if the security people are paying attention. (This adds information that P1 didn't have before)
P1: Really? Well, he still feels dangerous. I don't trust him at all. Let's move to the next car.

Now as for your example of "the man feels bad," that's a bit trickier. We need some context. If you and your friend were talking about how evil people were, and you pointed at someone with a sterotypical monocle and a handlebar mustache dressed in all black and said, "that man feels bad," we would likely understand that you were talking about a man which you have a gut feeling is bad. However "feels bad" is also a common English idiom which references remorse or sickness. Without context, an English speaker is almost certain to assume you intended to use this idiomatic phrase. We have no similar idiom for "seems bad," so if you say "the man seems bad," we will only ever interpret that as a statement about the man's character.

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