One thing that we like to do on this blog is consider the many different ways that we express the same thing in English. This week we’re focusing on looking. There are a lot of synonyms for the verb ‘look’, but as we observed in a previous post, ‘Many words in English have the same basic or overall meaning and yet are significantly different for one or more reasons.’
Let’s start with verbs that mean ‘look carefully’. If you inspect something, you look at it carefully in order to find out information: She got out of the car and inspected it for damage. (You might also inspect something at work by looking carefully at it to find out if the quality is good enough.) The verb examine is similar. A doctor examines a patient when they look carefully at their body to find out whether they are well. ‘Examine’ is also used outside of a medical context, meaning ‘to look carefully in order to find out information’: Investigators are examining the wreckage to determine the cause of the crash. / He leaned over and examined the front wheel of his bike.
If you peer, you also look carefully, but this time because something is hard to see: ‘How deep is it?’ she asked, peering into the hole.
To survey, again, is to look carefully, but this verb is usually used of large areas: We sat at the back, surveying the room.
If you scan something (again, often a large area), you look carefully for a particular thing: She scanned the crowd, hoping to see his face. / We scanned the horizon for any sign of a boat.
A different set of ‘look’ synonyms is used for ‘looking for a long time at the same thing’. Stare is the most common verb for this. Don’t stare at people, honey – it’s rude! / He sat, staring into the distance. Two informal verbs that mean ‘stare in a stupid or rude way’ are gawk and (UK) gawp: No one did anything to help. They just sat there, gawking at me! The verb gaze also means ‘to look for a long time’, but it is more positive in its associations. You usually gaze at someone or something attractive or someone that you love: I caught her gazing at a baby at the table next to us. You also gaze when you are thinking about something else: He spends ages gazing out of the window when he should be working. A phrase used in this area is can’t take your eyes off. If you can’t take your eyes off someone or something, you cannot stop looking at them, often because they are very attractive: He can’t take his eyes off you!
Next month we’ll consider more synonyms for ‘look’, including words for looking briefly at something.