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Ver-Mirar-Catar: Seeing the World through the Spanish Looking Glass

Ver Isn’t the Same as Mirar Which Isn’t the Same as Catar, but How?

Ver-mirar-catar is one of the most confusing verb groups for new Spanish learners.

Photo credit: Estitxu Carton licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

HomeBlogVer-Mirar-Catar: Seeing the World through the Spanish Looking Glass

Vermirarcatar is an argument that plagues new Spanish learners a lot, and for good reasons. Even in English, what you perceive with your eyes can be expressed using more than one verb. Sometimes we use to see, sometimes to watch. But we know the distinction. We know watching is a tad more deliberate than seeing. But Spanish comes with not a mere two but three distinct verbs for the action and they’re not exactly interchangeable. There also doesn’t exist a straightforward verb-to-verb mapping between Spanish and English. You can’t say, for instance, okay ver is to see and mirar is to watch, and run with it. It’s not that simple.

This is the confusion I intend to kill with this article. Yes the correspondence between the verbs isn’t as linear as we’d want, but all hope isn’t lost yet. There’s tricks to learn and memorize the differences and that’s what we’ll be unpacking here. But before we get to the vermirarcatar tricks, it’s first important to understand what each of these verbs really means. It’s also important to understand their etymology so the words look and feel less alien to our senses. That way, remembering them will be a breeze; we all know rote memorization is the worst.

Once through with them, we’ll reinforce the learning with a bunch of example sentences illustrating their usage and distinction. We will also look at, as a bonus, some fun idioms and expressions using these verbs in order to step up the game. The richness of a verb is often manifests in the number of cryptic idioms and proverbs it spawns. More so in Spanish. So let’s get going, shall we?

Ver-Mirar-Catar: Let’s Ver

Ver is both to see and to watch. When something is in your field of vision, you ver. You could do it for a fleeting moment or for longer than that, but it’s always ver. Of course, the real translation isn’t this simple but for now, this should suffice. Of the vermirarcatar trio, this is the verb you’ll be using in most day-to-day situations. So let’s dwell with it for a while.

Ver: The Nitty-Gritty

Ver comes from the Latin word  vidēre which also means the same thing. This is perhaps the most common verb in the vermirarcatar trinity. It doesn’t have a direct cognate in English but does have plenty of relatives. Words like version, vision, visual, vista, video — they all draw from the same Latin source as does ver. This should give you a good hint as to why the verb means what it does. It means to see. Both literally and metaphorically. The literal part is when you’re actually seeing someone with your eyes. Saw an elephant? Ver. Saw a nice dress? Ver. The metaphorical aspect kicks in when you use see in the sense of meeting someone or understanding something:

Voy a ver qué pasa (I’m going to see what happens).

A ver si podéis ayudarme (Let’s see if you can help me).

Now here’s the twist: Ver also means to watch. In English, to see and to watch are two very distinct actions and the only overlap between the two is your eyes. Not so in Spanish. Here, both translate into ver. So watching television or a game of soccer and seeing a man in the street, both use the same verb!

Ver: The Memory Hack

Ver should already be more familiar to you now than when you started out reading this. The etymology I gave above should be a near-dead giveaway. But that might not be enough when it comes to retaining the verb in active memory. Familiarity is just the first step to memory. So here’s something I did when I had this problem: I invented a mnemonic aid. You could come up with one for yourself (and I urge you to do so), but I’ll still give you what I have:

I saw Veronica and we went to my place to watch a movie.

The name of the girl is Veronica and not Monica or Ruth for a reason. It has a ver in it! The sentence contains two English verbs — see and watch — both corresponding to ver, the verb you find in Veronica. To make this mnemonic stick, make it as vivid as you possibly can. Make Veronica pretty, give her a lovely dress, make her sound sweet — customize her to your imagination, she’s your girl. If you already know a Veronica, even better. Make the movie interesting, build an ambience worth remembering. Now, every time you read ver, you’ll remember seeing Veronica. Now every time you read watch, you’ll remember doing so with Veronica!

Ver-Mirar-Catar: Mirar into the Mirror

Before we get into the details, let’s glance through a quick translation of mirar. The verb means to look. That’s a direct translation. In the vermirarcatar trio, mirar is the easiest to learn and not too far behind ver when it comes to usage. Ver might get tangled between to see and to watch, but mirar sticks to one and only one interpretation, to look.

Mirar: The Nitty-Gritty

As I said above, mirar has a very straightforward translation with almost no hidden meaning. The verb comes directly from its Latin roots with little corruption along the way. That Latin root is mīrārī, but more on that in the next section. So it’s established that mirar means to look. That’s the literal translation. But just as ver has a metaphorical meaning along with a literal one, mirar has a metaphorical meaning too: To face.

La casa mira al mar (The house faces the sea).

Miraron a la derecha y a la izquierda (They looked right and left).

The distinction, though, isn’t as vague as it seems. You have to face someone in order to take a look at them, no? So the two actions practically go hand-in-hand, making mirar an intuitive translation for both. Also note that mirar never works in isolation, it always takes a preposition: The preposition a. This isn’t a personal a situation since the preposition goes whether or not the object is a person. Thus, it’s always mirar a and not just mirar. Unless you’re using it in the imperative. It’s the same with its English counterpart where it’s always look at or look into and not just look unless in the imperative.

Mirar: The Trick

Remember what I said about the verb’s Latin source? Well, the same source also gives us an entire array of English cognates like admire, mirage, and most importantly, mirror. Mirror! That alone should ring a bell. Not only mirar and mirror almost rhyme, they even allude to the same action, albeit one is a verb while the other a noun. You literally look into the mirror. I doubt you need any more help than that with this verb. Even if you wish to reinforce this relationship, just conjure up a visual involving a mirror. Recall the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves saying:

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

Recall her voice, visualize a huge mirror with a rich gilded frame. Throw in a few candles and rich tapestry in the room for greater vividity. A visual this rich should be hard to forget. Besides, it’s from a story so well-known, there’s hardly anyone who’s not familiar with it. That’s double-whammy. No way mirar is dropping off your memory anytime soon.

Bonus tip: If you visit a seaside resort and find hotels named Miramar, you know where the name comes from. Mar is Spanish for sea. The hotel in question is typically sea-facing for a reason.

Ver-Mirar-Catar: Cut through Catar

Catar derives from the Latin word captāre which gives us to capture in English. This is arguably the least used verb in the vermirarcatar trio. But that doesn’t mean you can skip it entirely. Catar has its own place in your active lexicon because it fills a void left by the other two verbs. You’ll do well to take it seriously. Catar also gives us the noun catalejo which, although not much useful in day-to-day conversations, is good to know. Catalejo is Spanish for spyglass and is essentially a portmanteau of the verb catar (to look at) and the noun lejos (distant). If you’re into older adventure novels involving seafaring men, catalejo will come in handy.

Catar: The Nitty-Gritty

So if you’ve noticed, catar means to look at. But that’s what mirar means too, so why learn a separate verb? What’s the difference? The difference is in nuance. Catar is a more intense looking that mirar, closer to examine than to look. How much more, you ask? Well, that’s hard to explain. Think of the mirarcatar relationship in terms of the lookgaze relationship. You pay attention both while looking as well as gazing, it’s just that you pay more attention while gazing. Take catar as to gaze.

But like I said, mirar works for almost all use-cases involving catar in modern conversations. The distinction used to be more rigid a few centuries ago. So stick to mirar in your conversations, catar might make you sound awkwardly bookish.

Catar: The Trick

Remembering catar is easy if you recognize its etymology, because catar and capture are near-cognates. When you gaze upon something or examine it closely, you essentially capture it with your eyes. This is the easiest way to remember catar. And no, catar has nothing to do with the English verb cater. Another memory hook is to visualize a surgeon examining the innards of a patient he just had his assistant cut open for him.

Cut her open, so I could examine her.

Imagine the surgeon saying that to his assistant before the surgery. Again, vividity is your friend here. Picturize finer details and it’ll be harder to forget.

For most practical purposes, mirar fills in for catar too. For most practical purposes, mirar fills in for catar too.
Isacar Marín licensed CC BY 2.0

Ver-Mirar-Catar: The Reinforcement

Now that we’re through with a thorough understanding of the vermirarcatar trio, let’s reinforce all we learned. Although the memory hooks given above should make it a breeze to remember what each verb means, there’s always room for more. We will try coming up with some kind of a memory hook to string it all together and remember the difference between the three verbs without having to cram it all up.

To recap the memory aids we discussed earlier,

  • ver means to see or to watch, and “I saw Veronica and we went to watch a movie” helps remember that,
  • mirar means to look, and etymologically maps to mirror, and
  • catar means to gaze or to examine, and “Cut her open so I could examine her innards” is a mental hook for the same.

Now how do we bring it all together in a single mother-mnemonic? I doubt most of you even need this step — well, I didn’t — but just in case. Assuming you can at least identify these three verbs as having something to do with the eyes, we need to find a mnemonic that helps remember the differences amongst the three. How about this:

I saw Veronica looking at the mirror while her cat sat gazing at her in admiration.

Here, seeing Veronica is a hook for versee, looking at the mirror for mirarlook, and cat gazing for captargaze. This might not be the best mnemonic in the world and you can certainly do better with a little more thinking, but you now know where to begin. If you do choose to fly with this one, try adding your own embellishments to it so it becomes harder to forget. The weirder and more detailed your imagery, the stronger it’ll stick.

Ver-Mirar-Catar: Useful Expressions

Now we will check out some fun and interesting expressions and phrases that employ these verbs. This will not only help you construct real life sentences, but also expose you to the richness of Spanish idioms. Besides, idioms always make you sound more lively and less cookie-cutter. They add an off-beat color to your conversations, if you will.

1. A Ver

Meaning: Let’s see

Literally, this translates into in order to see, but being an idiom, the implied meaning is quite different. Just like its English translation, the expression has nothing to do with actually seeing. It’s more like a conversation marker that indicates you’re trying to remember something or just think. The expression can also be used as a question and when done, it serves as an interrogative hello, e.g., while answering a phone call. This practice is common in the Andalusian region of Spain.

A ver, ¿quieres verte conmigo más tarde? (Let’s see, would you like to join me later?)

A ver niños, ¿cuál es la capital de Francia? (Now, children, what is the capital of France?)

2. A Mi Ver

Meaning: In my opinion

This expression uses ver as a noun, something you don’t do with the corresponding verb in English. To me, that makes this a cool expression to throw in every now and then. In the context of this idiom, ver translates into opinion, well, kind of. A more relatable way to understand this translation is to think the way I see it.

A mi ver, te ves cansado (In my opinion, you look tired).

A mi ver, el proceso se verá en mayo ( In my opinion, the case will be heard in May).

3. Tener Algo que Ver Con

Meaning: To have something to do with

This one literally translates as to have something to see with. The ver in this idiomatic expression serves a figurative purpose, since to do is actually hacer in Spanish. That’s what makes this a more fun construct than a more grammatically accurate one using hacer. When an expression implies something different from its literal translation, it adds a native flair to your communication. Here, algo (something) can always be substituted with nada (nothing) or qué (what) depending on the message being conveyed.

¿Y esto qué tiene que ver con mi historia? (What does this have to do with my story?)

Yo no tuve nada que ver en la venta del terreno (I had nothing to do with the sale of the land).

4. De Buen/Mal Ver

Meaning: Good/bad-looking

Again, the literal translation makes little sense here. But it’s the idiomatic meaning that matters. Ver, in this expression, serves as a noun roughly meaning looks, rather than a verb. Thus, de buen ver is actually of good looks or, in other words, good-looking. The same usage of ver can also be seen in a slightly modified expression, tener buen/mal ver. With tener, the meaning becomes to have good/bad looks or, in other words, to be good/bad looking.

Mi prima tiene buen ver (My cousin is good-looking).

Ese actor no es de mal ver (That actor isn’t bad-looking).

5. Ver De

Meaning: To see about or if

De doesn’t ideally mean about or if but then, idioms being idioms, anything can mean anything. Typically you’d use this expression in combination with hacer or some other verb. Depending on the context, the expression can also be interpreted as to see to something, but those contexts would call for a que after de. Also depending on the context, this ver can mean to try.

Tenemos que ver de solucionar este problema (We must try to solve this problem).

Veremos de salir temprano (We’ll see if we can leave early).

6. Ver Venir a Alguien

Meaning: To see what somebody is up to

Literally, this one translates as to see to come to somebody. And that makes zero sense! Am I seeing? Am I coming? Why so confused? Yeah, that’s what idioms do. So don’t gun for the literal here. Just take the implied meaning for its words and seek no logical justification to it. I do, however, have a semblance of explanation for the construct that might make sense to you. Take venir as a gerund and not an infinitive here. Now the meaning becomes to see someone coming. Much better, right? This can give you some idea of why it figuratively means what it does.

Luckily, the expression has few use-cases and fewer versions, so you won’t have to do much mental gymnastics to memorize it, should you choose to. Besides, ver and venir, when run together, lend quite a rhythm to the idiom, no? Try saying it a couple of times and you’ll see what I mean; the expression just rolls off your tongue!

7. Ver y Callar

Meaning: To keep shut

Ver y callar is way more intuitive than it might seem. Ver means to see, as you’d expect, and callar means to shut, again as you’d expect. The literal translation is to see and shut up which is fairly close to how its used. Basically it says you can see whatever you are seeing, but you’d better not say a word about it. Don’t snitch, in a way. If you truly want to reinforce this one, there’s an entire movie named after it! It’s called Oír, ver y callar and came out in 2010.

No digas nada, tú solo ver y callar (You’d better keep your mouth shut about this).

8. Mirar Vitrinas

Meaning: To window-shop

I had almost forgotten this was a vermirarcatar post and not just one on ver! While ver is the most ubiquitous of the vermirarcatar trio, there’s no denying that mirar has its own place. So let’s put aside ver now and dwell on mirar expressions for now. Vitrina is Spanish for showcase, the ones you see at storefronts. So, mirar vitrinas is literally to look at shop windows, which isn’t far from the meaning implied. I mean that’s what window shopping basically is, isn’t it?

Me gusta mirar vitrinas los fines de semana (I like window shopping on weekends).

No tiene dinero, pero todavía se va a mirar vitrinas cada semana (She doesn’t have money but she still goes window shopping every week).

9. Mirar a Ver Si

Meaning: To see if

Look to see if. That’s the literal translation. Which is mighty close to what the expression means idiomatically. Look to see might sound like a stretch though, look feeling redundant and all, but that’s how it is. Could you just run with ver si? I don’t know. But I’m fine with mirar a ver si and so should you.

Mira a ver si ha llegado la carta (See if the letter has arrived).

Miro a ver si puedo hacerlo (I’ll see if I can do it).

10. Mirar Bien/Mal A

Meaning: To approve/disapprove of

Once again, this idiom has little to do with what it literally translates into. Word-for-word, the expression means to look good/bad at. Obviously zero sense is being made there. But the way it’s used is more in the sense of to look at something as good/bad. That’s the best one can do to bridge the literal translation with the implied meaning. The expression, should you feel like being a bit more verbose, can also be rendered as mirar con buenos/malos ojos a. Personally for me, though, that’s too much of a mouthful. Your mileage may vary.

No miro bien a tu novia (I don’t approve of your girlfriend).

Mi padres miran mal a mis amigos (My parents don’t like my friends).

11. Mirar Que Si

Meaning: To imagine if/that

Mostly this expression is used in the imperative form and as an exclamation. You can use it in a non-exclamatory sense but that’s less common. The implied meaning and the literal meaning aren’t too far apart in this case. The expression translates into to look if, which is pretty close to what it implies (so long as you disregard the que in the literal translation).

Mira que si apruebo el examen sin haber estudiado nada (Imagine if I pass the exam without having studied at all).

¡Mira que si es mentira! (What if it’s a lie!)

12. Mirar Por

Meaning: To look after

Por definitely doesn’t mean after. But that’s just how idioms roll. The preposition essentially implies some kind of exchange. Not here. Here, it merely serves to introduce what or who it is you’re looking after. But this shouldn’t surprise you as even in the English version, no actual looking is involved when you’re looking after someone. I mean you’re not really staring at that baby the whole time, are you? Another similar interpretation of this expression is to look out for. Or even to watch out for.

No te preocupes, voy a mirar por la bebé (Don’t worry, I’ll look after the baby).

El rey debe mirar por su súbditos (The king must look after his subjects).

The vermirarcatar threesome is incomplete without catar. So it might hurt to see I haven’t included any idioms involving that verb. But that’s only because I can’t recall any at the moment. It may or may not have spawned idiomatic expressions, but I’m positive that even if it has, there’s not a whole lot of them. As we’ve already seen earlier, catar is the least common member of the vermirarcatar family. So its lack of idiomatic involvement shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Key Takeaways

This is where we conclude our rendezvous with the vermirarcatar trinity. The key takeaways from this tiresome rant are as follows:

  • All three verbs pertain to perceiving things with our eyes, i.e. seeing, looking, etc.
  • Ver translates into to see or to watch, depending on the context.
  • Mirar translates into to look.
  • Catar means to gaze, to look at something longer than usual.
  • Catar can also mean to taste or to sample.
  • In the sense of gaze, mirar has largely replaced catar which was more common during the medieval times.

So that’s all there is to the vermirarcatar conundrum (hopefully not a conundrum anymore). You have the explanations, you have the hacks, and you have the contextual examples. Hope that should serve to kill all confusions you ever had around when to use which of these verbs. Feel free to comment below and share your ideas, mnemonics, or suggestions on the subject.


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