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seem, appear and look
Thy Nguyen from Vietnam writes:
  Are there any significant structural or semantic differences between seem, appear and look in the sense of to give the impression of being or doing something?
Roger Woodham replies:
look, seem and appear
Look, seem and appear are all copular verbs and can be used in a similar way to indicate the impression you get from something or somebody. Copula verbs join adjectives (or noun compounds) to subjects:
She looks unhappy.
He seems angry.
They appear (to be) contented.
Note that adjectives, not adverbs, are used after copular verbs. We do not say:
She looked angrily
He seems cleverly.
We have to say:
She looked angry.
He seems clever.
Of course, when look is not used as a copular verb, but as a transitive verb with an object, an adverb will describe how someone looks:
She looked angrily at the intruder.
look / seem - as if / like
After look and seem, but not normally after appear, we can use an as if / like construction:
It looks as if it's going to rain again.
It looks like we're going home without a suntan.
It seems as if they're no longer in love.
It seems like she'll never agree to a divorce.
seem / appear to + infinitive
After seem and appear we often use a to + infinitive construction ( or a perfect infinitive construction for past events). We cannot use look in this way. Compare the following:
They appear to have run away from home. They cannot be traced.
I seem to have lost my way. Can you help me?
It seems to be some kind of jellyfish. Do not go near it.
They appear not to be at home. Nobody's answering.
They do not appear to be at home. No one's answering.
We can also use a that-clause after It seems?... and It appears..., but not after look. It looks... has to be followed by an as if / like clause:
It seems that I may have made a mistake in believing you did this.
It appears that you may be quite innocent of any crime.
It looks as if / like you won't go to prison after all.
appear / seem - differences in meaning
You can use seem to talk about more objective facts or impressions and about more subjective and emotional impressions. We do not usually use appear to refer to emotions and subjective impressions. Compare the following:
impressions / emotions
It seems a shame that we can't take Kevin on holiday with us.
It doesn't seem like a good idea to leave him here by himself.
It seems ridiculous that he has to stay here to look after the cat.
more objective facts and impressions
They have the same surname, but they don't appear / seem to be related.
She's not getting any better. It seems / appears that she's not been taking the medication.
non-copular use of appear and look
Note that seem is used only as a copular verb, but both appear and look have other meanings and uses:
appear = (begin to) be seen
She has appeared in five Broadway musicals since 2000.
Cracks have suddenly appeared in the walls in our lounge.
Digital radios for less than £50 began to appear in the shops before the end of last year.
look = direct your eyes / search
I've looked everywhere for my passport, but I can't find it.
I've looked through all the drawers and through all my files.
He didn't see me because he was looking the other way.
Note that look is used in a wide range of phrasal verbs:
Could you look after the children this afternoon while I go shopping?
Could you look at my essay before I hand it in?
I'm looking for size 36 in light blue. Do you have it?
It's been a hard year. I'm looking forward to a holiday now.
I've written a letter of complaint and they've promised to look into the matter.
Look out for me at the concert. I'll probably be there by ten o' clock.
Don't you want to look round the school before enrolling your children?
He's a wonderful role model for other players to look up to.
If you don't know the meaning of these phrasal verbs, look them up in a dictionary.
They look happy enough.

Noun-verb agreement

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