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The Phrasal Verb 'Look At' Explained

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'look at', with examples and exercises.

Two kittens looking at something

Hello and welcome to my blog all about English phrasal verbs. The focus of this post is the phrasal verb 'to look at', which is one that I find that I use a LOT on this blog and so I thought it would be a good idea to give it its own dedicated blog page. In this post we will explore the main meanings of 'look at' and also some typical situations in which it is used by native speakers. So without further ado, let's go.....




Number of meanings




Past forms

Looked at / Looked at

British or American


For more explanation of the terms in the table above, click here



The letters ABCDEFG made out of different coloured plasticene

As is customary in each blog post, let's start by considering the basics....

In this case, we have the main verb 'to look' followed by the prepositional particle 'at'.

The verb 'to look' is a very common verb which can be used either to talk about viewing something with your eyes or to talk about how something is perceived when somebody views it. In the first case, the prepositional particle 'at' is required to specify the person or object that we are viewing. 'At' is a preposition with many uses in English, but the meaning that is relevant here is "towards or in the direction of something". See the below examples....

A woman holding up an apple and looking at it

The lady looked at the apple.

A red, fresh-looking apple

The apple looked very fresh.

One thing I notice with students is that they often confuse the verb 'to look' with other verbs of vision, such as 'to see' and 'to watch'. If you find it difficult to distinguish between these different verbs, I have put together the table below, which will give you some basic information regarding the differences....




To see

​To perceive or notice something with your eyes. The action is passive.

​I can see a spider on the wall.

To look

To move or direct your eyes in a direction in order to see something. The action is active.

I looked at the spider on the wall.

To watch

To focus on something and follow it with your eyes for a period of time. This is normally something that moves or changes. The action is active.

I watched the spider walking across the wall.

Now that we have covered the basics, the first meaning that we will look at should be a piece of cake.....


MEANING 1: Literal

​CEFR Language Level

A1 - Beginner




Only with certain adverbs

Potential synonyms

​To glance, to peek, to view, to gaze, to stare, to check out

As you may have seen in the examples in the green table in the last section, we use the preposition 'at' after look, to specify the thing that we focus on with our eyes.

This can be used either for when we direct our eyes and attention from one thing to another or it can be used just to talk about focusing on something with our eyes.

It is possible to use 'look at' for both short and long periods of time. For short periods of time, potential synonyms could be verbs such as 'to peek' or 'to glance' and for longer periods of time the verbs 'to gaze' or 'to stare' could possibly be used. Regardless of the duration, a key element of 'look at' is that the person or object that we are viewing does not move and we do not need to follow it with our eyes; in that case we would then use the verbs 'to watch' or 'to observe'.

Therefore, we do not say "I looked at a movie" or "I looked at the TV", but rather "I watched a movie" or "I watched TV". Literally speaking, if you say "I looked at the TV", it will probably be understood by a native speaker to mean that you are looking at the TV equipment and not watching the programme or movie.

Examples of usage....

Look at these old school photographs! How young do we look?!
Helen was looking at her phone and so did not see the hole in the road.
What are you looking at?
The word 'tips' spelt out using wooden blocks


You may have seen in the tables above that 'look at' can sometimes be used separably. It should be noted that the object always follows 'at' and cannot be placed between the two words, however there are certain adverbs that we can insert between 'look' and 'at' to modify them. Some of the most common examples of these are: directly, closely & carefully.

Alternatively, it is also possible to place these adverbs at the end of the sentence and sometimes before 'look at', but I personally think that inserting the adverb between them sounds better and would help to elevate your sentence.

If you look directly at the sun, you will damage your eyesight.
Look carefully at the picture and tell me what you can see.

MEANING 2: To examine something

​CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate




Only with certain adverbs

​Potential synonyms

To examine

Our next meaning of 'look at' is very much linked to the literal meaning that we have just considered and for all intents and purposes means the same thing. The only difference in this meaning is that we use 'look at' to describe when we carefully and methodically examine something. This is usually with the intention of determining the cause of a problem, finding out the nature of something (what it is) or checking something, such as a document, in order to make sure that it is all correct and in order.

As you can imagine, we normally reserve this usage of 'look at' for experts or professionals within a particular field, such as doctors, lawyers or teachers.

Examples of usage....

Your ankle looks really sore, you should get a doctor to look at it. INTENDED MEANING: Your ankle looks painful, you ought to get a doctor to examine it.
There is something wrong with my car and I've taken it to the garage, so that a mechanic can look at it. INTENDED MEANING: I have a problem with my car, so I have taken it to the garage so that a mechanic can diagnose it.
I have asked my boss to look at the report I've written before I submit it to the shareholders. INTENDED MEANING: I've asked my manager to check my report before I submit it.

The word 'tips' spelt out using wooden blocks


There are a couple of common variations of this usage of 'look at', which I want to make you aware of. In both cases 'look' is used as a noun and alternative verbs are used:

  • To take a look at something

  • To have a look at something

Both of these variations mean the same thing and are also often used to mean 'to examine something' in the same way as described above.

Examples of usage....

Leave this with me, I will take a look at it later today and give you my feedback. INTENDED MEANING: I will check this later and let you know what I think.
Would you mind having a look at my resume? I'm not sure if I have included everything I need. INTENDED MEANING: Is it ok if you look through and check my CV as I'm not certain I have all the required information.

You should note that it is also possible to use these in the literal form, especially when asking someone to direct their attention to something.

Example of usage....

Come here and take a look at this!! You won't believe it!
Have a look at this and tell me what you think!

MEANING 3: To consider something

A man with a pen and a pad thinking about what to write

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate




Only with adverbs

Potential synonyms

To consider, to think about

The next meaning of 'look at' is to consider or think about something. This is a usage that I use a great deal on this blog, since the whole aim of the blog is to consider and explore phrasal verbs and their meanings and usage. Additionally, I think that it is a further progression of the two meanings that we have already covered in this post.

When we use 'look at' in this way, we are talking about directing our thoughts or attention to a particular topic or issue, rather than our eyes. We often use it, like I do on this blog with different phrasal verb meanings, to take something in particular and think about it carefully in order to discuss or write about it. Alternatively, it can also be used to talk about when we consider specific problems or issues and how they can be resolved or when you have to make a decision and are considering different options.

One particular way that 'look at' is used here is when we want to give an example in order to justify or support something that we are saying. We often give our initial opinion and follow this by saying "look at XYZ for example".

Examples of usage....

In today's post, we are looking at 'to break down'... INTENDED MEANING: In this post, we are considering the phrasal verb 'break down' in detail.
We are aware of the problem and we are looking at ways in which we can resolve it as quickly as possible. INTENDED MEANING: We know about the issue and trying to find a way to fix it as quickly as we can.
I looked at Cambridge University as an option for my degree but the entry requirements were too high. INTENDED MEANING: I considered applying to Cambridge University to do my degree but I did not have good enough grades.
John should definitely be the person who gets the manager's job. Look at how good he is at interacting with the other members of the team, for example! INTENDED MEANING: John should get the promotion to the role of manager and one reason for this is that he interacts very well with other employees.

MEANING 4: To view from a different perspective

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate




Only with certain adverbs

​Potential synonyms

To view, to see

​Commonly used with

Perspective, point of view

The last usage of 'look at' on this post is one that does not differ too much from its other usages and is used to talk about viewing something from a different perspective to our own, or from a particular viewpoint.

We often use this to "put ourselves in someone else's shoes", in other words, to see something from a different person's perspective in a given situation. Moreover, we can also use it to talk about our own perspective at a different time in our lives, in which case we would often use the 3rd conditional due to the hypothetical nature of the statement.

Examples of usage....

Look at it from my perspective! INTENDED MEANING: Imagine how this situation looks and feels to me.
If you looked at it from Helen's point of view, you might think differently! INTENDED MEANING: Try and imagine how Helen sees this, it may change your mind.
If I had known this when I was younger, I would have definitely looked at things differently! INTENDED MEANING: If I'd known this before, my point of view would've been different.

The word 'bonus' spelled out using different colour helium balloons being help up by different hands

Before finishing this blog post, I want to make you aware of some additional uses of 'look at' that are commonly used by native speakers in everyday English.

Not much to look at - If somebody uses the expression that someone or something is "not much to look at", they mean that the person or thing is boring, plain, ugly or lacking beauty. As you can imagine, this can be quite offensive, especially if used to talk about a person, however sometimes it is used to say that something is not aesthetically pleasing but has some other positive qualities.

Example of usage...

My house is not much to look at from the outside but the inside is breathtakingly beautiful! INTENDED MEANING: The outside of my house is unremarkable however the inside is stunning!

Look at you! - This short expression is often used to convey surprise at how someone looks or is dressed, usually in a positive way.

Example of usage....

Wow, look at you Lisa, all dressed up like that. You look beautiful! INTENDED MEANING: Wow, I am impressed (in a good way) by how you look.

Would you look at that! - This short expression, which is more common in American English, is used to convey surprise about something negative that has happened.

Example of usage....

Would you look at that! My car has two flat tyres, how has that happened? INTENDED MEANING: I am very surprised as my car has two flat tyres and I don't know how this has occurred.

Look at phrasal verb question marks on different colour backgrounds

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to look at'....

  1. Check out this picture of me when I was younger!

  2. I love cloudless nights when I can view the stars.

  3. The doctor wants to check over my injuries and make sure everything is ok.

  4. We are carefully considering our next options.

  5. If only you would see it from our perspective!

  6. The way I view things now is very different to when I was a young man.


EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'TAKE OVER' (other variations may be possible)

  1. My brother is going to take me over to my friend's birthday party tonight.

  2. His company was taken over by another bigger company last year.

  3. I can't stop crying at weddings, my emotions just take over.

  4. New Harbour has recently taken over from Old Harbour as the city's busiest port.

  5. Whenever my wife and I cook together, she always takes over and tells me what to do.

  6. The accident was caused when the car tried to overtake another on a dangerous bend.


That is the end of today's post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and I sincerely hope that it has helped you a little bit further on your English learning journey.

If you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media, so together we can help as many English learners as possible to understand and master these tricky phrasal verbs.

Also, please leave any comments, questions, suggestions or examples of 'look at' below. I really love reading them. See you next time! James


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