Hear vs. Listen

What is the difference?

Hear and listen are two commonly confused words in the English language. When do you use each one?

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses

These words both talk about using our ears! They can be applied to same things (music, a conversation, etc.), but they have different meanings.

We'll look at explanations about what each word means and review some example sentences to see how each one works.


Hear is a verb that means to sense a sound with our ears.

When we hear something, it is by chance. This means we are not actively paying attention or waiting for the sound.


This poor cat didn't expect the girl's scream, but he heard it!

Remember that hear is an irregular verb in the simple past: heard.


  • I think I heard someone laughing in the apartment next door.
       - He wasn't expecting laughter, but the sound reached his ears.
  • You will hear native speakers use lots of contractions like "can't" or "didn't."

    - You are not specifically expecting or waiting for these words, but people will say them.
  • I heard a really interesting news story on the radio this morning.
        - You did not expect exactly that story, but they told it.
  • Did you hear the circus is coming to town?
        - You did not ask about a circus, but the news reached you.
  • You called earlier? I heard the telephone ring, but I didn't answer in time.

    - She wasn't waiting for the telephone to ring, but the sound reached her ears.


Listen is a verb that means to give your attention to a sound. When we listen, we are actively concentrating on the sound.

We can listen to a sound (a song, a speech) that is in progress. This is the most common way we use listen.

Or, we can listen for a sound that we are expecting. This means we are quietly waiting for the sound.


  • Please listen to the tour guide very carefully.
        - The speaker wants you to concentrate on what the guide says.
  • She likes to listen to the radio while she is at work.
        - She likes to turn on the radio and pay attention to the music while she works.
  • After this recording ends, listen for the beep. Then leave a message.
        - You should wait quietly, expecting the beep.
  • We will honk the car horn when we arrive at your building. Just listen for the horn and come down to meet us.
        - You should expect the car horn.
  • It's easier to run if you're listening to some good music!

    - You put on the music that you like best for exercise and pay attention to it while you run.


More Tips

Remember that we hear things by chance, when we are not expecting them.

Example: The post woman heard the dog bark. She wasn't expecting that!

post woman

But, when we listen to something, we are concentrating on it.

Example: The doctor is listening carefully to the boy's heart!


These were the differences between hear and listen. Now that you understand, it's time to practice! Get our ESL Books.

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