hear: ✓ hear ✗ listen (to)

By | September 8, 2016
listen (to)
Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
La libertà è il diritto di dire alle persone quello che non vogliono sentire.
- George Orwell
✓ I could hear a funny noise coming from the engine.
✗ I *listened to* a funny noise coming from the engine.
Sentivo un rumore strano che veniva dal motore.
(Notice the common use of could and can with hear: for example, Sorry, could you speak up a bit? I can't hear you!)
Using listen incorrectly instead of hear is a mysteriously common mistake made by Italian speakers of English, as English and Italian generally make exactly the same distinction. Hear generally corresponds to the Italian verb sentire (con le orecchie) while listen (to) corresponds to ascoltare.
If we hear something or someone, we simply perceive the sound they make with our ears. It is a "passive" action, in the sense that we may hear things unintentionally. (As Orwell said, we may even hear things that we don't want to hear!)
If we listen to something or someone, we pay attention to the sound it is making or what they are saying. It is an "active" action, in the sense that we make some kind of mental effort. Generally speaking, when we listen it's because we want to!
For example, we listen to our teacher, while we might hear the rain or the traffic outside. Or we may listen to a piece of music, but hear our neighbour playing the piano upstairs.
Compare the following examples:
✓ Sorry, could you say that again? I didn’t hear. (= I was listening but your words didn’t reach my ears)
Scusa, puoi ripetere? Non ho sentito.
✓ Sorry, could you say that again? I wasn’t listening. (= I wasn’t paying attention to or concentrating on what you said)
Scusa, puoi ripetere? Non stavo ascoltando.
Some more examples:
✓ Sorry I’m late. I didn’t hear my alarm clock. (= my ears didn't perceive the sound)
✗ Sorry I’m late. I didn’t *listen to* my alarm clock.
Scusa il ritardo. Non ho sentito la sveglia.
✓ Have you heard? We’ve got a new French teacher.
Hai sentito? Abbiamo un nuovo professore di francese.
Occasionally the choice isn’t always so clear. For example:
✓ You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve been saying, have you?
Non hai sentito neanche una parola di quello che ho detto, vero?
In the English example, by using the verb listen the speaker is emphasising the fact that the other person hasn’t been paying attention.
Of course, in cases like these it takes practice to "hear" the difference!
(Incidentally, the example also illustrates the fact that hear, like most “unintentional” verbs, is rarely used in a continuous tense. Listen, as an "intentional" verb, is often used in a continuous tense, as you can see in two of the examples above.)

Now try the quiz below! There are TEN answers. The passmark is 90% (9 out of 10). Click on the blue arrows to go to the next or previous question. You can check your answers immediately or when you've finished the quiz.

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