I have a question about the meaning of "see". Suppose teachers at a school are talking about how this year's test scores are not as good as previous years.

We have seen better test scores than this year's.

According to this dictionary "see" could mean either (definition 1) "become aware of something by using eyes" or (definition 2) "become aware of something by using something other than eyes".

Which definition should be used for the test-score example then?

2 Answers 2


First, note that the Meriam Webster definition of see, #2 does not say, "become aware of something by using something other than eyes". It's just "become aware of something"; it doesn't matter if the eyes are used or not.

The confusion is that the act of seeing is often intrinsically linked with acquiring knowledge. Often, knowledge is acquired through vision. But then how could one ever decide to use Definition #2 if Definition #1 always seems applicable?

The key is that a definition #1 is indicated when vision is the focus of the meaning, primarily assumed, or required. Definition #2 is indicated when the focus is awareness or knowledge rather than vision. Here's a general test one could use to determine whether or not the "visual sense" or the "knowledge sense" should be interpreted:

  • Would the statement still have the same meaning if some people may have gained the awareness/knowledge through means other than direct vision?
    If no, then the emphasis is on the visual sense, and favor Definition #1.
    If yes, then strongly consider the "awareness/knowledge" definition since vision is not required.

Now consider these sentences:

  • We have seen his work. He's very skillful with watercolors.

In this case, the speaker is talking about an actual instance of vision since, presumably, one typically requires vision for seeing visual arts. Now consider the target sentence:

  • We have seen better test scores than this.

While vision might have been the method for acquiring the prior knowledge, that is not a requirement. For some people, the knowledge could have been acquired from a lecture or a meeting. And most importantly, the teacher's main message is not about a prior act of seeing something with eyes. The teacher is comparing a prior fact with a current fact. It is the knowledge of the test scores that is being emphasized, not the visual sensation. Definition #2 prevails: to have become aware or to have gained knowledge.


It really doesn't matter which definition applies as the end result is the same.

It might have been unclear: I was not suggesting that the second definition fits better, but that this whole question seems a bit trivial to me. I do think that *the first definition normally applies* in this case. Nevertheless "I have seen better" is quite idiomatic. It is actually just saying "these results are bad". Even someone who has never seen any results could, by habbit, happen to say "I have seen better".

In order to clarify the struggle you seem to have with the second definition, here is an example that may explain it a little better

Steve and Jane have an argument. After explaining his position(sometimes even referred to as "point of view") Steve asks Jane "Can you see what I mean?" Jane may have become aware of the truth by reasoning but still denies this as she doesn't want to admit that she was wrong.

  • Personally I think there are more than two senses of the word see and that one of these others probably fits the best, nevertheless, out of the two given, I tend to think the first fits better because the teachers will have "seen" these previous results with their own eyes. It's not clear to me whether your answer is saying "here's the explanation of the second def. and therefore it doesn't fit or therefore it does."
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 5:03
  • @Jan I am aware of the fact that "see" has by far more definitions than 2.; I never stated that it hasn't. Nevertheless, I just answered a question that asks which definition of a given 2 applies. I could write an explanation of all definitions of "see" but I am neither a dictionary, nor is this the given question. Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 5:26

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