The words ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ share a common link between them, in that they both are related to the sense of perceiving sound. But there is an important though subtle difference in the usage of the verbs ‘hear’ and ‘listen’. Even though there is some region of overlap in their meanings and one may even find ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ listed as synonyms in standard dictionaries, in most instances ‘hear’ cannot be used in place of ‘listen’, and vice versa. In what follows, we elaborate the difference between ‘hear’ and ‘listen’.
‘Hear’ literally means ‘to perceive or sense sound with the ears’ – so, you ‘hear’ something simply by virtue of the fact that you are equipped with a hearing sense and the sound signal is reaching your hearing organ, the ears. No deliberate effort is applied to ‘hear’ something. ‘Listen’, on the other hand, means ‘to make a conscious effort to hear, to hear out of volition’ with the intention of comprehending the content of the sound signal. When someone says on the phone, ‘Hello, can you hear me?’, it simply means ‘Is my voice reaching you?’. But once you confirm that you can ‘hear’, you ‘listen’ to what the other person is saying.
Thus, ‘hear’ involves a passive participation, whereas ‘listen’ involves an active participation. Another difference between ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ is that the source of sound may be vague or not well-defined in the case of ‘hear’, whereas in the case of ‘listen’ it is always explicit. That’s why you simply ‘hear’ something, but you ‘listen to’ something or someone – a script, music, radio, or whatever.
However, in some contexts ‘hear’ connotes the same as ‘listen’: ‘to hear or listen to attentively’, ‘to pay heed or attention to’, or ‘to lend an ear to’ – for example, the court ‘hears’ your plea, not ‘listens to’ your plea; it gives a ‘hearing’ to a lawsuit filed by you, not a ‘listening’. Similarly, God ‘hears’, not ‘listens’ to, your prayers. ‘Listen’ can also connote ‘to follow or obey’.
In a way, ‘listen’ is more restricted in meaning than ‘hear’, which can also mean ‘to receive information or news from some source, to come to learn’ (for example, ‘I heard you are migrating to Canada’) and ‘to receive some form of communication’ from someone (for example, ‘I haven’t heard from Joe for a long time’). The principal parts of ‘hear’ are ‘hear, heard, heard’ and those of ‘listen’ are ‘listen, listened, listened’.
Here are some more examples to illustrate the difference between ‘hear’ and listen’:
- I hear some rattling sound in the kitchen; I think there’s a rat out there.
- I think David has gone nuts; he hears strange noises in the night that no one else can hear.
- My granny is very old; she can hardly hear a word.
- I couldn’t hear anything in today’s lecture because the loudspeaker was not functioning properly.
- The court heard her plea and granted her the permission for euthanasia.
- Have you heard the latest news? The new school principal has already resigned!
- What kind of music do you listen to?
- When my mother-in-law is around, she does all the talking – I just sit and listen.
- I hate listening to her long, boring stories about ‘those good old days’. Honestly, I don’t listen to a word of what she says; I just keep doing my work silently.
- I haven’t called you to listen to your sermons, just shut up and leave me alone.
- Listen, have you seen my car keys somewhere?
- These days very few kids listen to their parents and teachers.
That sums up this discussion on the difference between ‘hear’ and ‘listen’.