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Is there a difference between 'hear' and 'listen' in Standard English?

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To hear is to physically experience the sense of sound. As long as one's ear and brain are capable of processing sound waves, one can hear.

To listen is to deliberately apply the ability to hear. One who listens is thinking about what is heard, what it means, how to respond, and whether to continue to listen/pay attention.

Imagine three people seated together, with two of them speaking to one another. The third, temporarily not involved in the conversation, pulls out a phone and begins doing stuff with it, ignoring the conversation. This third person can hear the conversation, but is not listening to it.

(A person who is deaf might be said to be listening to a conversation if they can read lips, but it would be more correct to use a term such as engaged or participating.)

Note that there is some overlap in common usage:

"Did you even hear what I told you??"

is a common idiomatic expression of

"Why are you not listening to me?"

  • 1
    "see" and "look" are analogous; "touch" and "feel" are roughly analogous. listen, look and feel have to do with applying some sort of cognitive process to the sensory input, whereas hear, see, and touch refer only to the sensory input. ("Smell" and "taste" don't have related verbs that make that distinction.) – BobRodes Aug 14 '13 at 21:31
  • One could argue that "hearing" is more than just the fact that sonic vibrations were sensed by the eardrum but that one must be consciously aware of that vibration. Therefore, per your example, if someone were distracted and not aware that someone was speaking to them, they not only may not have been listening, but didn't even hear the sounds. – Metagrapher Feb 25 '14 at 18:46
  • @Metagrapher: That's something to consider. But it gets into matters of biological definition at that point, and that's way out of scope for this site. Besides, then we would have to replace one simple word, hear, with a cumbersome longer phrase like process incoming auditory waves. It just doesn't scale. – Jonathan Garber Feb 26 '14 at 14:28
  • I think you missed the nuance here. It is possible that one is paying so little attention that even though the sound reached your eardrums, you did not hear it. – Metagrapher Mar 8 '14 at 19:09
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    It is exactly semantics. That is the whole point of language, no? – Metagrapher Mar 10 '14 at 4:53
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'Hearing' is the physical activity of sound falling on the ears and the biological processes involved in its perception. 'Listening' is the ability to pay attention to what the sounds means and understand it.

We hear noise, but we listen to music.

That is because noise falls on our ears without any effort at our end. But music is something we pay attention to; we expend effort.

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Listening is own choice but hearing comes automatically whether you want or not

  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. – M.A.R. Apr 26 '15 at 16:08
  • There's nothing here that previous answers haven't already explained (in far more detail). I agree that this post would be more appropriate as a comment as @MARamezani suggested – Lucky Apr 26 '15 at 18:00
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    This is not quite true, either. Sometimes someone will say something right in front of you and you don't hear it because you are distracted. – 200_success Apr 26 '15 at 19:35
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To Listen means to understand and pay attention what someone is saying. hearing means any sound that is coming to ur ears . for example, mom ordered u to do some work n u said I'll do it n u forgot... This is hearing where u didn't paid attention towards what ur mom is telling.....another example... Is when u are solving maths questions with earphones in ur ears... At this time u are hearing the music.... But when u are free n just lying on ur bed or sitting idle. ....at this time u are listening to music.....actually... HEAR is till ur ears....like we say in Hindi....ek kam se suna n dusre se nikaal Diya....that is what hearing

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