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Here is the example that came up today: My mother went to the park to _______ birds.

Would you use look at or watch, and why?

  • In general, "watch" implies a more conscious level of observation than does "look at". And if your mother is a "bird watcher" then she might very well go to the park to watch birds (engage in the activity of "bird watching") rather than watch the birds. If she's not a bird watcher, though, one would generally use "the" as suggested by FumbleFingers. – Hot Licks Jul 5 '16 at 1:39
  • Thanks for the feedback. :) English textbooks/lessons here in Japan try to be grammatical as possible but seem to miss the natural aspect of the language. Ah, well... – Veaudoo Jul 5 '16 at 6:23
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Both are technically acceptable (neither is ungrammatical), but it depends what your nuanced meaning is. I would normally use them in differing situations. For example: I would go to a zoo to look at birds, but go to a park to watch them.

My mother went to the park to look at birds.

This sounds to me that she goes to the park and sort of walks around to observe the birds as though they're an exhibit. She might be examining the different species or characteristics of various birds.

My mother went to the park to watch birds.

In this one, it seems your mother goes to the park, sits down, and observes the birds from a distance. Maybe it's relaxing to her or something.

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Good question. There are some nuances to the look vs. watch vs. see that many people take for granted.

Look

  • Used to ask for attention/volition

    Look at/watch/see this cool website I found.

Watch

  • Usually used for intense concentration

    I closely looked at/saw/watched him count out the money.

  • Usually used when watching things with motion

    I watched/saw/looked at the painting for 5 minutes.

  • Can be considered an activity

    Do you do anything in the morning? I watch/see/look at people surf at the beach in the morning.

See

  • Usually not used for motionless things

    I've been looking at/seeing/watching this picture for about 5 minutes now. It's so beautiful.

  • Not used for getting attention

    Look at/watch/see my cool magic trick.

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