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!