When should I use "look", "see", and "watch"?

I'm watching "Star Trek".
Have you seen "Star Trek"?

Are the examples above correct?

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Here are some simple rules that will help deciding which word to use:

  • See is used as inactive word; you just see without any effort:

    • you have visual impression: "I can see my home over there", "I see trees of green"
    • you understand: "I see what you mean"
  • Look is used as active word, you make an effort to see:

    • you try to see: "look at this!" (maybe you have to turn your head or stand up)
    • you pay an attention: "to look for a baby"
    • you search for something: "you can look up the word in the dictionary"
  • Watch is also an active word; you also make an effort, but it is for a longer period of time:

    • "I'm watching "Star Trek", "I like to go to a zoo and watch tigers playing"
    • pay attention: Watch the kittens as they may run away.

Here's an example demonstrating the difference:

I'm looking, but I don't see it.

Back to examples:
I'm watching "Star Trek" — it is a continuous action;
Have you seen "Star Trek"? — it is a question if you ever seen it at all, or do you know about it;
It can be also formulated: Have you watched "Star Trek" all night?, and it will mean that you have spent all night watching a movie.

See also: (1), (2).

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  • 3
    and "I looked at the screen to see what John was watching." – SF. Jan 26 '13 at 13:28
  • '+1', Nice answer. I was looking for the difference, and find your answer :-) – user31782 May 27 '14 at 2:21
  • So can you watch a picture or a statue? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 28 '15 at 19:22
  • To watch a picture or statue sounds strange. You look at it, you don't watch it. "Have you seen "Star Trek"? — it is a question if you [have] ever seen it at all, or do you know about it." So in this case, it's best to ask, "Have you ever watched 'Star Trek?'" – Susie Q. Jun 28 '16 at 14:06

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