Sense verbs are verbs that relate to our five senses. The most common verbs of the senses are:

  • See
  • Hear
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell

These verbs give the most basic descriptions of each of our five senses. However, we can use numerous other verbs to talk about our feelings. These include, among others:

  • Look
  • Watch
  • Observe
  • Notice
  • Listen
  • Feel

In writing, it’s a good idea to vary our vocabulary because this makes our content more interesting. For this reason, we need to learn a range of different sense verbs so we don’t have to keep repeating ourselves.

We also have to be careful of how we use these verbs in sentences, as some of them have more than one meaning, or they can change their structure depending on their grammatical position in a sentence.

Let’s take a closer look at senses verbs and how we can use them.

The three types of sense verbs

There are three types of sense verbs in English, classified by how we use them to describe what we’re doing.


Passive senses verbs relate to the things we sense unintentionally, without trying. We often use the main reason verbs in this way. For example:

  • ‘I saw a bird flying past the window.’
  • ‘My dog can smell the cheese.’
  • ‘I heard your phone ringing.’

We haven’t been trying to do any of these things; our senses have picked them up.

When we use passive sense verbs to talk about what our minds are involuntarily doing at the moment, we usually use them with ‘can’ or ‘can’t.’ We don’t use the continuous form of the verb. So, we would say, ‘I can see the sea from here,’ not ‘I’m seeing the sea from here.’


We use sense verbs to describe an intentional action as dynamic sense verbs. Here are some examples of emotional sense verbs in action:

  • ‘I looked out to sea.’
  • ‘She’s listening to music.’
  • ‘Let me taste the cake mix.’

These are all examples of our senses being used intentionally to achieve a specific purpose.

We can use dynamic sense verbs in their continuous forms to describe a current situation, as in the second example, ‘She’s listening to music.’ This suggests she’s listening to music at present. If we said, ‘She listened to music,’ this would tell us she was purposely listening to music but that this has already happened. It’s different from ‘She heard music,’ which is passive, telling us she wasn’t intentionally listening to it.


Stative sense verbs tell us about what we’re sensing and why our senses react this way.

  • ‘That food smells delicious.’
  • ‘Your dog looks so cute.’
  • ‘This coat feels so warm.’
  • ‘Their music sounded great.’

As we can see from these examples, we use stative sense verbs to talk about what our minds are responding to and how they make us feel.

Sense verbs with more than one meaning

Some sense verbs aren’t just used to describe what our senses are doing; they can also tell us about other things in our lives. For example:

  • ‘We’ve started seeing each other.’ This refers to people dating.
  • ‘I’ve heard he’s not very nice.’ Again, this refers to gathering information about something or someone.
  • ‘I felt it was the right thing to do.’ This refers to an emotional state rather than physically feeling something through touch.
  • ‘You look beautiful.’ This is a sense verb used as a non-action (copular) verb, as it refers to an observation about someone else.

Modifying sense verbs

If we want to modify a sense verb, we should use an adverb. Compare these sentences:

  • He listened carefully to the teacher.
  • He listened carefully to the teacher.

In the first example, the sense verb ‘listened’ is modified by the adverb ‘carefully.’ This is grammatically correct, so it makes sense. In the second example, we use the adjective ‘careful’ to modify the sense verb. This doesn’t make sense, as it’s incorrect.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. If we’re using a sense verb to observe someone else, it’s being used as a copular verb. This means we should modify it with an adjective. Compare these two sentences:

  • She looked happy to be there.
  • She looked pleased to be there.

The first example is correct, as the sense verb ‘looked’ is being used as an observation and modified by the adjective ‘happy.’ However, the second example doesn’t work because we’re trying to alter the sense verb with the adverb ‘happily.’

Using sense verbs to make comparisons

We can use sense verbs to compare something to something else by using ‘like.’ Some examples include:

  • ‘Your dog looks like a teddy bear.’
  • ‘He sounds like my dad.’
  • ‘This jumper feels like cashmere.’

In the cases of ‘smell’ and ‘taste,’ we can also use ‘of’ instead of ‘like’ to make comparisons.

  • ‘This soap smells of flowers.’
  • ‘The cake tasted of almonds.’

This is because we’re more likely to compare smells and tastes to what they smell or taste like rather than making broader comparisons with our other senses.

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