Are you listening? (Hearing and listening words and phrases)

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by Kate Woodford

We have two ears and one mouth so that we listen more than we talk, or so the saying goes. Whatever we think of this saying, most of us certainly listen (or at least, hear) a lot during the course of a day. This week, then, we’re looking at the various words and phrases that we use to describe this activity.

A number of expressions describe the activity of intentionally listening to other people’s conversations, for example the word eavesdrop. If you eavesdrop, you listen to someone’s private conversation without them knowing: I’m sure that man was eavesdropping on our conversation! A phrasal verb with a similar meaning is listen in: I’m not listening in on your conversation, honestly! (Notice the collocating preposition ‘on’ after both verbs.) If you strain your ears, you try very hard to hear something: I was straining my ears to hear what they were saying. Meanwhile, if you overhear something that someone says to another person, you hear it without intending to: I overheard a funny conversation on the train this morning.

If someone is in/within earshot of a conversation, they are near enough to be able to hear it. If they are out of earshot, they are too far away to hear it: I didn’t like to comment while your mother was within earshot. / Wait till Adam is out of earshot before you say anything!

Other phrases convey that someone listens carefully to what someone says. If you hang on someone’s every word, you listen to every detail of what they say because you find it very interesting. Her audience were hanging on her every word. Meanwhile, if your ears prick up, or you prick up your ears, you start to listen carefully because something suddenly interests you: My ears pricked up because I heard them mention Jonathan.

If you listen out for a something that you are expecting, you make an effort to hear that thing. James will be arriving soon. Could you listen out for the doorbell while I’m in the shower?

Other verbs refer to successfully hearing speech, often when this is difficult because a place is noisy or someone’s voice is quiet. If you catch what someone says, you manage to hear it: He speaks so quickly – I didn’t catch everything he said. Similarly, if you make out what someone says, you manage to hear it, but with difficulty. The recording was so low – I couldn’t make out what she said.

Meanwhile, if you mishear what someone says, you fail to hear correctly what they said: You must have misheard her. She can’t have said that! If you say I must be hearing things, you mean you think you heard a noise when in fact, there was no noise: I was sure I heard the telephone ring. I must be hearing things!

I’ll end with a ‘listening’ idiom that contains the word ‘ear’. If you say you are all ears, you mean you will listen carefully to what someone has to say: Sophie, you wanted to tell me something? I’m all ears!

48 thoughts on “Are you listening? (Hearing and listening words and phrases)

  1. Ashin Sarana

    I suppose you want to say “catch” is related to noticing and understanding what the other person said, and “make out” refers to understanding the meaning.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi! They can both be used to mean ‘to manage to hear something’. (‘Make out’ can also mean ‘to manage to see or understand something’. Best wishes!

      1. Jerrye Foy

        Not an expert by any means. Just a language lover. We have hearing loss in our family as well so we use these phrases frequently and often are mouthing the phrases rather than speaking aloud assuming the person on the receiving end will be lip-reading anyway and not wanting to add to the cross-talk that is making us not be able to catch the meaning in the first place.

        It seems that these phrases are only used in the negative and that “could not make out what was said” is the obligate and complete idiomatic phrase. In any other context to make out has a different meaning. I feel that the affirmative version: “I made out what was said,” sounds odd and is not used.

        Similarly “did not catch what was said” is the idiom. Does anyone say “I caught what was said” or “I did catch what was said?” I think not. We would simply say “I heard”. The words “make out” and “catch” with regard to hearing imply specifically NOT being able to do so in whole or in part.

        “I couldn’t make out what she said.”

        I guess one could say, “I caught most of what was said,” or “I think I made out what the she said.” Still there is a partial negation of understanding or implied loss of full understanding that is implied by the choice of idiomatic phrase. What do you think?

        More examples of very subtle meanings are appreciated when one chooses to identify their stuff whereas the other person’s belongings are their junk (As in “Could you please move your junk?”)

    2. Briki

      Thank you for this blog highlighting the listening concept that is currently the big challenge for many learners of English language particularly the ‘listening ‘function…to share with them during the course.

  2. Vero

    Thank you very much for this post! By the way, I have hearing problems, so I felt strongly identified with most of the expressions. From now on, I can use it in English!

  3. Arturo Leo

    Important things come out, when using properly verbs in an orthodox way. Similar does not mean equal. Thanks for this important information.

  4. Wiz lee

    our country has a similar saying: 囝仔人有耳無嘴, it means children have to become himself that ‘has ears and no mouth’. Or to be more specific, it is used to warn children not to speak much However listen. As naive comments almost all the time leads to misunderstandings, embarrassment, and even argument, this saying is extremely ubiquitous among homes.

    1. Kate Woodford

      How interesting! We used to have a similar phrase (not heard much now) that children should be ‘seen and not heard’!

      1. Si

        I’ve often thought that whoever it was that came up with these undoubtedly wise words, he/she hit the proverbial nail clean on the head!
        Which is to say, I agree, wholeheartedly, with what’s being suggested……. They might not even need to be seen the whole time?
        As true today as they’ve always been, I believe, wise words indeed………

      1. Kate Woodford

        Giulio, I had inadvertently missed the ‘s’ off the end of ‘contain’. Corrected now! Best wishes.

  5. Bassey Sampson

    I love the site let’s continue with this. Even the Bible says we should be fast to hear but slow to respond or to speak.

  6. Fun article. It made me wonder about the origin of some of these words. In particular, “eavesdrop” conjures up some interesting visions! Thanks for the article.

  7. James Holgate

    “Listen up” is a useful idiom for “listen carefully”, and “S/he wouldn’t listen” means another person consciously rejected your statement e.g. I suggested to my aging father that his hearing has diminished and he should get a hearing aid, but he wouldn’t listen.

  8. Thomas

    concentrate on what is heard. Sometimes always overhear something even if they are within my earshot.
    I think I am going to pass a very crucial moment, by doing which, I will be in much better situation in fully understanding the speakers meanings.
    If I hang on every word of the whole sentence from the speaker, I will most probably forget the first half of this sentence. But if I don’t pick up my ear to hear the whole sentence, I will not understand what the speaker mean either.
    If I listen out what the speaker says, I will not concentrate.
    Sometimes it is really too difficult to catch every word of the speaker, how can I understand? Simetimes, I also mishear the speaker’s saying even there is not any noisy around.
    In general, what can be done to enhance my listing ability? Anybody can help?

  9. Annelie

    I enjoyed “hearing” this. All of these “sayings” are familiar to me…and why? Because of reading from a very young age. If you truly want to know a language, you need to understand the finer nuances of the words you string together. Thanks.

  10. Ololade Olaniran

    This article is very interesting. I will try to memorise all the words and phrases you listed here.

    That said, I want to point out that, as a general grammar rule, when a noun or pronoun serves as the subject of a gerund, such noun or pronoun should be possessive.

    In the second paragraph of this article you wrote: “if you eavesdrop, you listen to someone’s private conversation without them [their] knowing”. To be grammatically correct, change “them” to “their”.


    Paul W. Lovinger’s The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style.

  11. Abdelrahman Ashraf

    Hello, Miss Kate Woodford
    Such intriguing post..Thanks
    If I may ask, is there any e-mail address through which I can inquire about some issues? Such issues concern the linguistic field particularly and language in general, since they are my major.

  12. Sadia Ikram

    Very helpfull article… all the idioms are very well explained with simple and easily understandable way that we couldn’t have to “make out” so much to learn n memories these phrases… thanx Kate…

  13. Sadia Ikram

    Very helpfull article… all the idioms are very well explained with simple and easily understandable way that we wouldn’t have to “make out” so much to learn n memorize these idioms and phrases as well… thanx Kate…

  14. Danielle

    It was one more fruitful post among all the others wrote by Kate Woodford. I am looking forward to the next ones!

  15. Ruksar

    There’s one more phrase that might out slipped out of your mind
    It is something we say to someone who is being talked about.
    “My Ears Are Burning”
    I wouls love to be corrected if I am wrong

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