Glimpse and Glance: Same or Different?

By Maeve Maddox

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Some writers and speakers use the words glimpse and glance interchangeably, but there are differences.

Glimpse comes from a word that meant “glimmer” or “sparkle.”

As a noun, a glimpse is something that catches the eye:
I caught a glimpse of her through the car window.

As a verb, to glimpse is to see something momentarily:
I glimpsed the knife before she slipped it into her bag.

Glance comes from a word that meant “to move quickly.”

As a noun, glance is a brief look that passes from one person to another or to a thing.
The man’s glance at the chorus girl seemed threatening.
I didn’t like the glance she cast at my gold watch.

As a verb, to glance is to bounce off something or to take a quick look at something.
The sun’s rays glanced off the surface of the newly washed car.
The arrow glanced harmlessly off the knight’s armor.
Would you glance at this letter before I sign it?

Here’s how Fowler explains the difference in Modern English Usage:

the glimpse is what is seen by the glance, and not the glance itself; you take or give a glance at something, but get a glimpse of it.

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3 Responses to “Glimpse and Glance: Same or Different?”

  • Geoff Foster

    This post reminds me of something that I have become increasingly concerned about: the incautious use of a thesaurus (particularly that in Microsoft Word).

    This is what it says for ‘glimpse’; first, in the literal sense: sight, peep, quick look, peek, glance, shufti.

    Then, in the figurative sense: hint, foretaste, indication, pointer, sign, preview.

    My editing clients (often students from non-English-speaking backgrounds) try valiantly to write good prose; however, many of them have been given the concept of ‘elegant variation’, so they turn to the thesaurus to spice their writing up a bit.

    How can they be expected to sense the subtle differences of meaning that a native speaker has been refining for a long time?

    So, I’m presented with sentences whose meaning has been made completely obscure.

    Fortunately, I’m fond of cryptic crossword puzzles, so I can regard their disentanglement as fun!

  • Roshawn

    I’ll definitely have to remember this one. It’s details like these that separate experienced writers from novices.

  • Lisa

    I read somewhere that they both mean ‘to take a brief look’, but that ‘glance’ means doing so intentionally, and ‘glimpse’ unintentionally. Is this true?

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