ESL grammar · expressions · Grammar

How to Use Seem when You’re not 100% Sure

seem (2)

You can’t always be sure in life. In that case you can use seem.

So when you’re not stating a fact, you can use seem.

Compare the following:

Elephants are grey.

This is 100% true, isn’t it?

Well, some people would say they are a little brown.

In that case, such a person would say:

Some elephants seem a little bit brown.

Please note that I’ve also added “some” to the sentence. This is another way of making your sentence less sure. But about that we’ll talk some other time.

Here is another example of a fact:

Drinking coffee makes you more alert. (= more awake)

This seems a fact. But your friend, who drinks 10 cups of coffee a day, doesn’t feel that coffee does have a great effect on him. So he says:

Drinking coffee seems to make you more alert.


Drinking coffee seems to make some people more alert.

Oh sorry, now I’ve added the “some” again.


Drinking coffee doesn’t seem to make you more alert.

As you can see, I can also use seem in the negative, and then it also makes the sentence less sure.

Here is a last example of a fact:

The planet Neptune is far away.

But your friend won’t agree. As she says, our universe is so big that the distance from Earth to the planets in our solar system seem quite close. It’s only for us that the planets seem far away.

So she will say:

The planet Neptune seems far away.

Or with not seem:

The planet Neptune doesn’t seem close to us.

Using Seem When You Want to be Polite

Seem is also a great verb when you want to say your opinion, and be polite in the same time. I don’t know what this is like in your own language, but saying a fact when you’re only expressing your thoughts can be problematic.

Consider this:

You’re at a reception and talking to some acquaintances. They’re not your best friends. You’re discussing medical issues. I know, not a very nice subject, but popular notwithstanding. You want to say that doctors are not very friendly. Then you think: I’d better say that: Some doctors are not very friendly. The problem is that one of the acquaintances in your circle is a doctor.

So finally you decide to say this:

Doctors don’t seem to be friendly.

Problem solved. Because you’ve used seem, everybody in your group knows that this is your opinion or your impression, and it’s not a fact.

If you’d like to make your statement even more doubtful, you could also add always, like so:

Doctors don’t always seem to be friendly.

Let’s see another example:

You think football is a violent sport. (And dumb too, but you’re not going to say that.) You’re talking to your best friend, who loves football.

So you say:

Football seems such a violent sport.


Your friend will not be offended when you say something like this. And perhaps you can have an interesting conversation.

Similar Verbs: Look and Appear

In the place of seem you can use some other verbs that mean more or less the same: look and appear.

Here are some examples of those:

London looks like a city where only the rich can buy a house.

The difference between seem and look is: look is for things you can see or observe.

Now with appear:

Shane appeared tired.

You can use appear for things that seem to be in the person or thing that you’re looking at, and it’s not a question of your own thoughts or feelings.

Appear is also more formal than seem.

Now try the quiz to check that you understand the use of seem:


In the following exercise please decide whether the two sentences mean the same.


Joanne is pregnant.

Joanne seems to be pregnant.


Not the same.

Do this quiz online here. 

  1. It’s hot.

It seems hot.

2) The city seems more busy than usual this afternoon.

The city doesn’t seem as busy this afternoon.

3) Our new professor seems nice.

Our new professor doesn’t seem too bad.

4) It’s too far to walk there.

It seems too far to walk there.

5) Furnishing your apartment with antiques isn’t too expensive.

Furnishing your apartment with antiques seems too expensive.

6) He doesn’t know how to solve that problem.

He seems to know the solution to the problem.

7) 10 pm seems to be too late for dinner.

10 pm is definitely too late for dinner.

8) Buying flowers seems such a waste.

Buying flowers is a waste.

9) Children today seem cleverer than we ever were.

I think children today are cleverer than we ever were.


More Practice

I also recommend that you watch this older video about seem and seem to be.

And you can do this quiz too.


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