Thursday, June 30, 2011

Look at That and Watch What Happens, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In my last piece, I asked that you look at 14 pairs of words and see if you could clearly and simply explain the distinctions between the two words or phrases in each pair. I said that I’d post my own interpretations in my next piece – this one – and that it would be fun to compare notes. So let’s get to it!


  • a bee’s sting: a wound inflicted by a bee, i.e., the aggressive action of a bee

A bee’s sting can be as painful as a wasp’s.

  • a bee sting: an actual wound already inflicted by a bee

That bee sting you got yesterday still looks pretty inflamed.

  • a few: “not many” with no negative or unhappy connotation

I had a few peanuts before dinner.

  • few: “not many” with a possible negative or unhappy connotation

Being a pathological liar, she had few friends.


  • blooms: synonymous with “flowers” on trees that don’t bear fruit

If you use this fertilizer, you’ll see lots of blooms on your gardenia bush.

  • blossoms: flowers on trees that produce fruit

What I like about my Meyer lemon tree is that it has blossoms all year long.


  • chicken: the (prepared) food item (an uncountable noun)

We’re having chicken for dinner tonight.

  • a chicken: the living creature (a countable noun; plural: chickens)

My neighbor’s breaking a town ordinance by keeping chickens in his yard.


  • door: something we open and close to go from one room to another or to go inside or outside

Kids, close the door gently when you come in. Don’t slam it!

  • gate:

1) departure area in an airport terminal where passengers wait to board a plane

Your plane will be departing from Gate 12.

2) passageway in a terminal that passengers cross when entering or exiting a plane

The ground attendant will open the gate at boarding time.

3) part of a fence that opens to allow a person to pass through

I make sure the gate on the fence around my house is closed so my dog can’t get out.


  • hear: involuntary activity that the ears do

Do you hear that funny noise? Where’s it coming from?

  • listen (to): to pay attention to certain sounds or concentrate on those sounds

Sorry. What did you say? I wasn’t listening.


  • bottle: a container used for liquids with a long neck and narrow opening

I used to buy soda in bottles. Now I only buy it in cans.

  • jar: container for storing a variety of things with a short neck or no neck and a wide mouth

Can you open that jar of pickles for me? The lid’s on really tight.

  • meat: normally the word used for what is eaten

Doctors now say we shouldn’t eat red meat more than twice a week.

  • flesh: what all animals, including humans, have

His injuries were so severe that his flesh was exposed.


  • on a show: refers to television or radio

Ever watch “Law and Order”? A friend of mine was on the show.

  • in a show: refers to a movie or stage production

As a dancer, her dream was to perform in a Broadway show.


  • perfume: a concentrated and strong, relatively expensive, fragrant liquid used exclusively by women

She only wears perfume when she attends very formal evening affairs.

  • cologne: a weaker, less expensive, fragrant liquid used by both men and women

My wife and I really like “Polo Sport.” There’s one type for men, and one for women.


  • large: refers to physical, concrete things with real dimensions

That’s quite a large sapphire. How many carets is it?

  • big: also refers to physical, concrete things with real dimensions, but can also refer to    abstract or figurative things

That’s quite a big sapphire. How many carets is it?

Don’t believe a word he says. He’s a big liar!

(By the way, the same holds true for their opposites, small and little. And one interesting extra tidbit is that when you say a small girl, you’re referring to the child’s physical size, but when you say a little girl, you’re referring to her age.)


  • stations: what you find on a  radio

I always leave my dial on the golden oldies station. I love 1950’s pop music.

  • channels: what you find on a television

We’ve seen that movie. Turn the channel and find something else.


  • tall: normally refers to something from the ground up

The tallest trees in North America are the coast redwoods in California.

  • high: normally refers to something in the air (one exception: mountains)

How high do most commercial airlines fly?


  • damage: refers to the bad physical condition of a thing after some sort of mishap or destructive force

Their house sustained lots of damage after the hurricane.

  • damages: money compensation imposed by a court for some kind of loss or injury

When he won his lawsuit, he received damages amounting to $150,000.

(It’s interesting to note that many less educated Americans have taken the uncountable noun damage and started using it as a countable noun in the plural form to express that there is more than one problem with the physical condition of  a thing.)

Well, how close were your comparisons to mine? Of course there’s usually room for some difference in interpretation, but I do hope our distinctions are pretty close.

Finally, I also asked the following in my previous piece: “Check out the title of this blog piece again. It’s Look at That and Watch What Happens. Okay, so what if I substitute one of the verbs and say Look at That and See What Happens? Does this have the same meaning as the original title?” My answer is that it basically does. If we use see instead of watch, we’re communicating the idea of “witnessing” an event or occurrence rather than “observing” it, which is how I’d interpret watch, but there’s really little difference between the use of the two verbs in this case.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into one aspect of English vocabulary that makes things more difficult for our students – and our teachers. And I hope you’ll always be sensitive to the nuances that English vocabulary can have. Maybe we’ll do this again some time!


Comment from nalini
June 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Hi Richard,

Many thanks for this little excursion you took us on. Words that collocate is something we as teachers,particularly non native teachers, grapple with often time.

It certainly has been more helpful with the kind of corpus based dictionaries we find these days in the market.

This also brings in the question of the use of Corpora into the language classroom. I’ve certainly not tried it since many of us are still very much in chalk and talk based classrooms. What would you advise in such situations, I wonder?

Comment from Richard Firsten
June 30, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Hi, Nalini! Thank you very much for leaving a comment. I’m glad you liked my pieces on this often difficult area of vocabulary learning.

As for the use of corpora in the language classroom, I think sometimes we can get too high-tech for many students, some of whom can easily get overwhelmed by the amount of information available at one fell swoop. I think dealing with targeted words or phrases as they pop up in class is perhaps a slower, but easier way of dealing with differences in meaning or usage between words such as “shop” and “store” or the exact sameness in meaning or usage between words such as “ill” and “sick,” with the only difference being their origins (“sick” from Anglo-Saxon and “ill” from Old Norse).

A teacher who’s on his/her toes, when coming across a juicy item to deal with, can make a note about mentioning differences between voabulary items. That’s how I did it during my teaching career. When a word like “shop” came up in a lesson, I’d immediately think about a similar word like “store” and then go find out how the two are used differently. It was a fascinating activity for me, and it helped my students learn the words and internalize their difference meanings or usages.

Thanks again for your comments!

Comment from Dr. Naquib
July 2, 2011 at 9:23 am

Dear Richard:

You are really serving the teachers! But you never talk like a typical teacher.
You are sharp enough to anticipate what we, teachers, need to know to learn and and to teach.

Please go ahead.

Kind regards.


Comment from Dr. Naquib
July 2, 2011 at 9:26 am


You are neither retired ( as you declare and designate yourself) nor tired. In fact, you are tireless! Tireless Richard.

Comment from Haleemss
July 3, 2011 at 3:37 am

Thanks a lot.

point 1:

a bee’s sting: a wound inflicted by a bee, i.e., the aggressive action of a bee
A bee’s sting can be as painful as a wasp’s.

What about the small sharp-pointed organ at the end of the abdomen of bees which is capable of inflicting a painful or dangerous wound by injecting poison.

Isn’t it a “bee’s sting”?

Point 2:

“…,but there’s really little difference between the use of the two verbs in this case.”

May we know that little difference?

Point 3:

I asked that you look at 14 pairs…

Would there be a difference when we say:

I asked you to look at 14 pairs

Thanks a lot.

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 3, 2011 at 2:53 pm

First, I’d like to say something about Dr. Naquib’s comments.

Thank you very much for your observations and for the nice things you’ve said, Dr. Naquib. They’re appreciated very much.

Hi, Haleems. Here are my answers to your questions:

Point 1: I’m American, and in American English, that organ of the body of some insects is called “the stinger.” I understand that in British English it is referred to as “a sting,” but as I’ve pointed out, this isn’t the case in American English.

Point 2: The little difference between “see,” which I interpret as “witness,” and “watch,” which I interpret as “observe,” is that there is an element of pondering over what is happening before your eyes when you watch/observe something happening, whereas when you see/witness something happening, there isn’t that element of intellectual observation. That’s my take on these two verbs, but I did say that some native speakers may feel that the difference is very slight.

Point 3: “I asked that you look at 14 pairs …” is the use of the mandative subjunctive, a formal way of speaking. “I asked you to look at 14 pairs …” is the more typical sentence structure used with a verb like “ask.”

I hope that clarifies these points, Haleems. Thanks a lot for asking those questions. 🙂

Comment from Haleemss
July 4, 2011 at 1:34 am

Thanks a lot, Richard.

So, if you were British, you would accept the point No.1, right?

Regarding point 3, I, for one, thought that the former is more polite than the latter. I wonder if my hunch is still true.

Thanks again.

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 4, 2011 at 8:22 am

You’re very welcome, Haleems.

Yes, if I were British, I’d say “a bee’s sting” rather than “a bee’s stinger.”

As for Point 3, the choice of using “watch” or “see” has nothing at all to do with level of formality or politeness.

I’m very glad you find this subject interesting. Thanks again for your questions and comments.

Comment from Haleemss
July 4, 2011 at 11:54 am

Thanks a lot.

I’m afraid that point 3 is not the one you talked about. It is about “I asked you…”. Please have a look at it again.

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Haleems, I did talk about Point 3. I don’t understand where your confusion lies. You first asked me if there was a difference between saying “I asked that you look at …” and “I asked you to look at …” I answered that for you. Please review what I said.

Comment from Haleemss
July 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm


Here is point 3 from my first post:

Point 3: “I asked that you look at 14 pairs …” is the use of the mandative subjunctive, a formal way of speaking. “I asked you to look at 14 pairs …” is the more typical sentence structure used with a verb like “ask.”

My question is that I have hunch that “I asked that you look…” is more polite than “I asked you to look…”

I hope that you can see that point 3 has nothing to do with “watch” and “see”.

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Sorry, Haleems. The use of the mandative subjunctive in “I asked that you look …” is considered more formal, not more polite, than saying “I asked you to look …”

Here’s another example using the mandative subjunctive (the first sentence) as opposed to the more common way of saying something (the second sentence). The level of formality is what we see, not the level of politeness:

– It’s important that he be here by noon.
– It’s important for him to be here by noon.

I hope that takes care of things. 😉

Comment from Haleemss
July 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Yes. Thanks a lot.

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