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I just got asked which sounds better, and I have no idea which one should be preferred:

"A closer look on how buildings are manufactured."

vs.

"A closer look at how buildings are manufactured."

Is there a difference, or personal preference, or which one should it be?

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EDIT: Thanks to FumbleFingers' ear, StoneyB's mind and Snailboat's eye I will "modify" my answer. Many thanks to all.

Only look at can be the acceptable choice in this instance. To look on is a verb, but in the sentence below it is used as a noun.

"a closer look at how buildings etc."

(Original answer)

I think it's the word, closer, which forces me to prefer "at". We often use look at to mean to see something with attention, whereas look on can sometimes mean to consider, take into consideration.

  • Concur. To 'look on' is either to stand by (idly) and watch something, or to have an opinion about something (to look on X as Y); to 'look at' something is to give it careful attention. – StoneyB Jun 10 '13 at 15:48
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    I don't think I can concur. With or without the word "closer", a look on how [something is done] doesn't sound remotely acceptable to me. – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '13 at 16:09
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    @FumbleFingers On further review, I agree - I was amplifying Mari-Lou A's final sentence and thinking of the verbs, not OP's nouns. – StoneyB Jun 10 '13 at 21:54
  • It's been here long enough without modification. I'll post an answer. – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '13 at 22:14
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    You can look on the bright side, but in that case look is a verb. This is the noun, a look, and you can't have *a look on, only a look at. – snailcar Jun 10 '13 at 22:23
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My first thought was that only at is valid in OP's construction (which is a noun phrase, not a sentence).

But it's worth noting that in an actual sentence, it's just about possible to use a different preposition between look and how...

When as a therapist you see a client, instead of looking at how he or she fits the existing research, you should look for how the client disobeys the rules of research.

The reason that writer specifically uses for in the second instance is that it strongly implies focussed attention attempting to detect a specific thing. Looking at something can often mean little more than "allowing your gaze to rest on something, with no clear purpose or special concentration".

As @StoneyB comments, to look on is normally only used to mean either to stand by (idly) and watch something, or to have an opinion about something (to look on X as Y). Neither of which apply here.

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You look at something for more details of it; you look on something to see what is going to happen with it, and may overlook its details. After looking at it, you decided to look on for a while.

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