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The Phrasal Verb 'See Through' Explained

Updated: Jan 28

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

Optical illusion of windows in a mirror to illustrate the phrasal verb 'see through'

Hello and welcome to my blog all about English phrasal verbs. Each week, I take a different phrasal verb and look at how it is used by native speakers, with a focus on the different meanings it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.

This week's phrasal verb is 'see through', which on the face of it seems quite straightforward, but in fact has some interesting uses that you may not be aware of. So, without further ado, let's take a look....




Number of meanings




Past forms

Saw through / seen through

British or American?


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



The letters A-G spelt out in plasticine on a red background

Our focus verb this week is the verb 'to see', which is a sensory verb, meaning 'to perceive something with your eyes' and I'm sure it will be extremely familiar to most readers. In addition to this sensory meaning, it also has a second meaning in English, which is to understand something after consideration or reflection; possibly as we can see something clearly in our mind once we understand it. The meaning of 'see' that we are interested in for this phrasal verb however, is the first meaning of visual perception.

The preposition that is keeping 'see' company in this post is 'through', which is one of those annoying English words with a lot of unnecessary letters (thru is also a less common variant of through and should be limited to informal use only). The main meaning of 'through' is to pass into something on one side of it and out on the other side. In other words, to pass into and out of the interior of something, ending up on the other side of it to the where you started.

Ok, so now we have covered the basics, the first meaning should be pretty obvious....


MEANING 1: Literal

CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary





After looking at the words 'see' and 'through', it will probably come as no surprise to you that the literal meaning of these words combined is simply 'to see through the middle of something to what is on the other side of it'.

This can be used for anything through which light passes, enabling vision to the other side such as a hole, windows, cracks, tunnels, clothing and fabrics to name a few. In this sense the modal verb 'can' is normally used to express the possibility of 'seeing through' something.

Examples of usage....

I love this dress but in very bright sunlight you can see through it, so I only wear it on dreary or rainy days.
The car accident was caused by the driver not being able to see through the tinted windows.

Native speakers also often add the word 'right' between 'see' and 'through' to emphasise when something can be seen through very easily or clearly.

Examples of usage....

This crack in the wall is getting bigger, you can see right through it and into the garden now!
That fish is astonishing! You can see right through it!

If we want to insert a direct object into our sentence and talk about who or what we can see on the other side of the transparent surface, we just insert it into the middle of 'see' and 'through', as per the below examples....

I knew that he was coming as I could see him through the window.
Now that your clothes are wet we can see your underwear through them!

The word 'tips' spelt out using wooden letters


In addition to the phrasal verb 'see through', we also have the adjective form 'see-through', which is derived from the literal form of this phrasal verb. As you can probably guess, if something is 'see-through', it is transparent or in other words, you can see right through it! This is most commonly used to talk about items of clothing but other nouns that you may hear it with are floor, ceiling and display.


MEANING 2: To understand someone's hidden intentions

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate





Potential synonyms

​To realise, to get the measure of someone

This second meaning of 'see through' is a slight departure from the literal meaning that we have just looked at, as it does not really involve our eyes at all. The meaning here is 'to understand or realise what a person's hidden intentions are'.

This meaning is all about deception and pretence. It should only ever be needed if a person is not being genuine or sincere, perhaps because they want to gain something from us or from the relationship. If and when we realise that the person's intentions are not sincere and we understand the true reality of the situation, we can say that we 'see through' them.

In addition to seeing through a person, it is also common to use nouns like 'words', disguise', 'pretence', 'lies', 'deception' and 'facade'.

Examples of usage....

The jury immediately saw through the defendant's story in court. INTENDED MEANING: The court jury could tell straight away that the defendant's story was not genuine.
I could see through him from the very start. I can't believe that you couldn't!! INTENDED MEANING: I knew that he was lying or pretending from the beginning and I don't know how you couldn't.
Lisa saw right through John's clever disguise! INTENDED MEANING: John's disguise did not work on Lisa and she could easily see the truth about him.

MEANING 3: To persevere with something and finish it

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate





Potential synonyms

To persevere, to persist, to stick with, to stick something out

In this third meaning we need to change our word order from 'see through something', with the direct object following the verb, to 'see something through', with the direct object now being placed firmly in the middle of the phrasal verb construction.

This change of word order and direct object placement gives us a brand new meaning, which is to 'persist or persevere with something until the end'. This is typically used in situations in which you start something that turns out to be more difficult than you originally anticipated and en element of perseverance or persistence is required in order to finish it. Examples of this could be a difficult work project, a romantic relationship that is not going well or a demanding job that you have started.

The majority of the time when using 'see something through', the difficult job or situation has already previously been mentioned in the conversation, so we normally only require the pronouns 'it' or 'them'. Also, it is quite common to follow this usage up with the words 'to the end' or 'to completion'.

Examples of usage....

My wife and I have been having problems for some time now but we have agreed that we will see them through for the sake of our children. INTENDED MEANING: My wife and I are experiencing problems in our marriage but we have decided that we will persevere with our relationship and resolve the issues for our children.
I experienced so many problems when designing my website and I almost gave up but thankfully I persevered and saw it through and now I am a very proud website owner. INTENDED MEANING: When I was designing my website I faced a lot of problems which almost made me quit the project, but I persisted with it and now I am really proud of it.
Lisa has handed in her notice today and will leave at the end of this month but she has promised to see the finance project through to completion before leaving. INTENDED MEANING: Lisa has told her employer that she is leaving but will ensure that she finishes the finance project before she goes.

MEANING 4: To support someone in a difficult time

A silhouetted workman holding his hand out to another man to help up a slope to illustrate the phrasal verb 'see through'

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced





Potential synonyms

To support, to help through, to get through

Our fourth and final meaning of 'see through' is to help and support someone through a difficult period until they are ok again.

This is quite similar to the previous meaning that we have just looked at, however rather than seeing something through, in this case the direct object changes from a situation or problem to a person and we see someone through instead.

The idea here is that the problem or negative situation is something that will pass with time, however it will be very difficult (or impossible) without other people who support us and help us through to the other side. This support could come in many forms but typically would be giving money, providing emotional support or some other help that we may require until the negative or difficult situation has passed.

Alternatively, if we say that something "sees us through", it means that we have enough of it to last for a particular period of time, especially if this period is difficult or challenging in some way. Typically, this could be money, food or something else which we don't want to run out of before we can obtain more of it.

I wasn't able to work when I was at university but thankfully my parents paid for my accommodation and saw me through. INTENDED MEANING: When I was at university I could not work, but luckily my parents paid for my accommodation until I graduated.
Hibernating mammals need to store as much fat as possible to see them through the winter. INTENDED MEANING: Mammals that hibernate in winter need to store up enough fat to enable them to survive the winters when they are sleeping.

Question marks on different colour backgrounds to introduce the questions section on the phrasal verb 'see through'

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to see through'....

  1. I looked out the window and saw you in the garden.

  2. Helen could tell that John was fake from the very moment that she met him.

  3. You can't wear that swimming costume, it is completely transparent!!

  4. I intend to persevere with the French course until the very end!

  5. Here is £1000, this should cover your financial needs until the end of the month.

  6. Some bread and meat was enough for the family to live on until the end of the winter.


EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'GET OUT' (other variations may be possible)

  1. John was stuck in his car and could not GET OUT.

  2. This battery is stuck in the TV controller and I can't GET it OUT.

  3. Buckingham Palace tried to keep the news about the latest royal scandal quiet but it GOT OUT nonetheless and quickly became public knowledge.

  4. Sometimes I really struggle to GET the words OUT.

  5. I've managed to GET OUT of babysitting tonight, so I can come to the cinema with you.

  6. Lisa stopped going to the gym as she was no longer GETTING anything OUT of it.


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 'see through' below. I really love reading them. See you next time! James

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