Is there any grammatical terminology to describe the difference between 'hear' and 'listen'?


Hear is a ____ verb and listen is its ____ counterpart.


Hear-listen is a pair of ____ words.

2 Answers 2


I think the term you're looking for is volition.

Listen is a volitional verb and hear is its non-volitional counterpart.

When you listen to something, you're paying attention to it on purpose.

Here's how the term is defined in David Crystal's A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th ed.:

volition (n.) A term used in the semantic analysis of grammatical categories, referring to a kind of relationship between an agent and a verb. A volitional verb or construction is one where the action takes place as a consequence of the agent's choice, e.g. Mary left. A non-volitional verb or construction is one where the agent has no determining influence on the action, e.g. Mary slipped. Many verbs allow both interpretations (e.g. X hit Y – accidentally or on purpose?). The notion has also had a contrastive role in the analysis of the meanings of certain auxiliary verbs in English: for example, the volitional sense of will in I will go (in the sense of 'it is my decision to go') is distinguished from other senses, such as characteristic action (They'll sit there for hours).



Hear is transitive and in its root sense telic: it requires a direct object, and it ordinarily designates a 'achievement', a change of state: you become aware of something which you were not aware of previously.

Listen is intransitive and atelic: it does not take a direct object (something which is actually heard when you are listening is designated by the object of a preposition), and it ordinarily designates an 'activity', a continuing investment of energy in maintaining a state of awareness.

The terms telic, atelic, achievement and activity are discussed in a little more depth at the tag-wiki on aspect.

  • 2
    I would have guessed the OP was looking for non-volitional and volitional.
    – user230
    Nov 9, 2015 at 0:05
  • 1
    @snailboat Some folks only hear what they wanta hear. Nov 9, 2015 at 2:18
  • So, @StoneyB, is the sense of see in I saw the accident telic, where as the sense of see in I've seen the film atelic? (And is watch atelic too?) Nov 9, 2015 at 11:55
  • So, @StoneyB, is the sense of see in I saw the accident telic, and the sense of see in I've seen the film atelic? (And is watch atelic too?) Nov 9, 2015 at 15:33
  • 1
    @snailboat Actually you are right - volition is the concept I am after. I did not look up for linguistic meaning for telicity, only looked at a dictionary explanation for the word telic and thought it meant volitional.
    – NS.X.
    Nov 9, 2015 at 20:44

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